Facing dismally low approval ratings and accusations that Congress is dysfunctional, some senators are looking at changing the rule book so they can get more things done.
Senate Republicans huddled Wednesday to discuss changing Senate rules to make the institution function more effectively, but they are far from coalescing around a single proposal. Emerging from a room off the Senate floor, lawmakers cautioned there were a number of options, but the senator leading the effort is hoping Republicans and Democrats can reach a consensus on any changes in the next two to three months. “I think the discussion was very well received," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told reporters. "It’s hard to get here, it’s hard to stay here, and while you’re here you’d like to accomplish something. But when we stand around and wait all week for these various motions to be approved, that’s not accomplishing anything."
Alexander led a working group of six senators that included Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and four freshman senators. After the meeting, one of those freshman was concerned that changing the rules wouldn't help the Senate function better, and doing so could have unintended consequences.
"We don’t focus on the most important things most urgently, earlier, and work harder and longer," said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. "And so the idea that any particular rules change could fix it, I’m pretty skeptical of.”
Sasse said the working group met five times to look at the issue, and often with former parliamentarians or Senate officers who are fluent in the chamber's procedural language.
Some options include lowering the 60-vote threshold to end debate on the motion to proceed to spending bills; enforcing a two-speech rule limiting senators to two speeches on a single issue; renewing a provision to decrease debate time for sub-Cabinet nominees and District judges, and decreasing the time for debate after senators vote to end debate from 30 hours to 20 hours.
A main question, senators noted, was whether any rules changes on procedural motions would be applied solely to appropriations bills — or across the board. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said a top priority in 2016 is putting all 12 spending bills through regular order, rather than combining them into one giant year-end spending package.
Sasse echoed the call for a regular appropriations process, and ending the process of passing continuing resolutions to just extend prior funding levels. But he was skeptical that changing the rules could help, and suggested that making it easier to pass spending bills could create a make "a super class of senators" on the Appropriations Committee.
“Congress has to break the CR habit but all senators should be deeply skeptical of any changes that centralize power," Sasse said. "The Senate’s rules work best when they strengthen the hand of individual senators not for obstruction but for genuine debate.”
Alexander, though, said there was an appetite in the conference to look at changes for moving forward on all legislation, not just spending bills.
"I think overall there’s much more sentiment toward any change applying across the board on the committees, not just the Appropriations Committee,” Alexander said. “The goal, he later added, is to make all the legislation move more effectively and efficiently.”
Alexander said the baton will now be passed to the Rules and Administration Committee, for Blunt and ranking member Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the No. 3 Democrat. Alexander said he has kept Schumer and the other Democratic leaders informed that Republicans were looking at making changes, and he wants a final proposal to come out of the Rules Committee, and not from either party.
"There’s a Republican interest in making things work here. But we don’t want a Republican proposal," Alexander said. "We want consensus.”
Alexander also said he hoped the Senate would vote on any rules changes, which would require approval from 67 senators, in the next two to three months.
"Let’s do it now, but to take effect after the election or first of the year, before we know who’s in charge," Alexander argued. "Because where you sit, whether you’re in the majority has a way of whether you think you need a rules change or whether you don’t.”
But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said they were still trying to figure out if the Republican Conference would be united behind any rules changes, and that discussions will likely continue at the GOP lunch Wednesday afternoon, at the joint retreat in Baltimore this week, over the phones, and, he joked, in the Senate gym.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
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