The new No. 2 Republican in the Senate says that if history is any judge, the chamber’s leaders will likely work out a deal and not pull the trigger on the “nuclear option” to change the Senate rules with a simple majority vote.
“The history of this has been that people get up to the edge of the abyss and they look into the abyss and they pull back because what majorities realize is that majorities are transient and that today¹s minority can become the majority,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn told CQ Roll Call last week. “So what they do to the minority is what they will have to live with in the future. Usually what that does is prompt some sort of negotiation and some sort of agreed outcome, and I certainly hope that is what happens here.”
He noted that discussions between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are continuing “and I hope does not result in the imposition of the nuclear option.”
Negotiations between the two party leaders and their staffs could result in a proposal coming to the floor as early as Jan. 22. The Senate, however, may agree to further delay action by again extending the first legislative day of the 113th Congress, as Reid did to preserve his procedural options on Jan. 3.
Supporters of the procedural maneuver to make changes to curb filibusters argue, however, that any agreement this time would need to go much further than the handshake “gentlemen’s agreement” at the start of the last Congress in 2011. Those supporters include a group of Democratic senators led by Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Merkley and Udall said Jan. 3 that if Reid brought a package to the floor without a deal in place, he could get the simple majority.
Outside groups aligned with the Democratic side have pushed for enactment of the changes envisioned by Merkley, Udall and Harkin. The coalition of groups are backing more substantial changes to the Senate rules than anything likely to be the result of a negotiated agreement between Reid and McConnell, and they sought to press their case further last week.
A group known as Fix the Senate Now sent a letter signed by a coalition of left-leaning public interest groups, unions, environmental, immigration and other organizations to Senate offices Jan. 10 endorsing a package of changes (S Res 4) pushed by the Democratic rules overhaul leaders. The AFL-CIO sent an email to activists last week pressing for them to become engaged on the effort to halt what it called a “silent” filibuster that does not require senators to hold the floor in order to block legislation.
“Believe me, this filibuster abuse is a real problem. Bills that would have stopped rewarding corporations for outsourcing jobs, made it easier for workers to organize for a voice on the job, required corporations to disclose contributions to politicians, ended subsidies to big oil companies and other critical initiatives all passed the House and had majority support in the Senate,” AFL-CIO Digital Strategies Deputy Director Nicole Aro wrote. “But they didn’t become law because of the silent filibuster.”
Aro is referencing several bills that passed the House during the 111th Congress when Democrats controlled both chambers. Those bills include the “card check” legislation that is designed to make it easier for workers to form unions by holding elections through signing cards instead of secret ballots.
In a separate statement, the environmental group Sierra Club endorsed the proposal from Merkley, Udall and Harkin, saying that it would “bring desperately needed transparency and accountability to the Senate.”
The group also pushed Democratic leaders to go forward with bigger changes. “Make no mistake, this proposal is the only meaningful reform option on the table. That is why the Sierra Club intends to mobilize our 2.1 million members and supporters to call on their elected representatives to fix the Senate by passing this bill, ending the obstructionism, and getting to work doing the job they were elected to do,” Executive Director Michael Brune said.
The supporters call it the “constitutional option,” citing inherent constitutional authority for each Congress to establish its own rules.
This time, the circumstances may be closer to a 2005 situation in which then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was considering a change in Senate rules to eliminate use of the filibuster to prevent judicial confirmation votes because of a blockade Democrats erected against some Bush administration nominees. The Senate ultimately avoided taking that standoff to the floor when the “gang of 14,” a group of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, agreed not to vote with their parties on filibustering judicial nominees except in the case of extraordinary circumstances as defined by each individual senator.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.