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Filibuster Changes Get Senate Approval

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
McConnell, left, and Reid have agreed to modestly modify Senate filibuster rules and appear to have a gentlemenís agreement to avoid the constant quorum calls that have plagued the chamber in recent years.

Senators voted overwhelmingly Thursday evening to enact a package of modest changes to the Senateís rules and procedures, adopting an agreement brokered by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The Senate voted, 78-16, to adopt temporary rules changes for the 113th Congress, easily clearing a 60-vote threshold set up for the vote. Then, the Senate adopted a change to the chamberís rules 86-9. As is customary, the chamber set a two-thirds threshold for the vote, since two-thirds of senators voting are required to limit debate on a rules change facing a filibuster under normal circumstances.

Neither party leader made floor speeches before the votes, which were the first roll calls of the 113th Congress.

While the package falls far short of what a group of more liberal Democratic senators had sought, it should accomplish one of Reidís stated goals: allowing business to progress more quickly. In no case, however, will senators lose the right to force a 60-vote supermajority vote on bills and nominations as provided under the existing rules.

Most significantly, the package modifies Senate procedure to provide two new expedited options for bringing legislation to the floor.

On legislative items on which Reid and McConnell agree to take up, the cloture vote on the motion to proceed would take place the day after the motion is filed, eliminating a waiting day. In addition, there would be no further debate after cloture is invoked, cutting out another day. That falls short of doing away with the ability to filibuster motions to proceed altogether. (Cloture motions, which limit debate, require 60 votes for adoption.)

Reid would have a second choice, however. The majority could proceed to legislation without risk of an initial filibuster if it guaranteed that each party is allowed to offer a pair of amendments. Partially resolving a concern publicly raised by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, amendments offered through that process would be subject to an automatic 60-vote threshold if they are not germane. Thatís based on an idea from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Shortly before the votes, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee cautioned that those changes could actually undermine the ability of all senators to have rights to offer amendments.

In addition, the rules package will make it easier to get bills into conference because senators will have only one chance to filibuster, rather than the three in place under the old rules. The difficulty of getting bills to conference has made the House-Senate negotiating process virtually defunct because only unanimous consent allows bills to go to conference without burning too much floor time.

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