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Senate Seeks Bipartisanship in Rules Overhaul

Sen. Patty Murray, from left, Schumer and Reid after the Democratic policy luncheon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Charles E. Schumer is upbeat that the Senate's rules will be tweaked by the time he's expected to become Democratic leader in 2017 — regardless of which leadership job that becomes.  

But for any rules change plan to advance, the New York Democrat says it will have to be bipartisan and need a two-thirds vote. Both sides agree the "nuclear option" won't be used to implement adjustments in how the Senate takes up legislation.  

Schumer, the ranking member on the Rules and Administration Committee, told reporters he and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander discussed the Senate's rules during a weekend with their wives at Blackberry Farm in the eastern part of Alexander's native Tennessee.  

"In the past, Lamar — we had differed. I felt we needed some rules changes. Lamar said it's just behavioral changes, but now he agrees we need some rules changes," Schumer said Tuesday. "We both agree ... it should be done in a bipartisan way by changing the rules with two-thirds, which would mean by necessity you'd need Democrats and Republicans, and I'm optimistic. I'm looking forward to our discussions."  

Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to break filibusters of resolutions changing the rules of the Senate, which is why there is the need for unusually high 67 votes. The idea, as The New York Times first reported Monday , is to advance the changes in the current Congress for the next one, which convenes in 2017.  

Alexander, a former Senate GOP conference chairman, has been the leader of a cadre of Republicans appointed by leadership to explore ways to improve the Senate's operations.  

"I think we're focused on simple changes that encourage a flood of good behavior that causes the Senate to work as effectively as it can," Alexander told reporters. "We still want it to be a place where you stop and think about what you're passing. You know, just because it runs like a freight train through the House doesn't mean it ought to run like a freight train through the Senate."  

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Alexander said he hoped that after working with Republican senators there could be discussions with interested Democrats before moving forward — especially at a time when neither party knows which one will control the chamber in the 115th Congress.  

"That way, it's not clear who's going to be in the majority or who's going to be in the minority, and it might be easier to get a consensus," Alexander said. "We're kind of doing some of the preliminary spade work before Chairman Blunt and Sen. Schumer deal with it in the Rules Committee."  

Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri also emphasized the importance of not acting without getting 67 votes, rather than taking an action to change Senate precedent with a partisan vote. That was the route taken by Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada when his party was in the majority to advance nominations by President Barack Obama.  

The Democratic-led change, which remains in effect, requires only a majority vote in order to limit debate on nominations for executive branch posts and federal judgeships except for the Supreme Court. Previously, 60 votes were required to invoke cloture on those nominations.  

"We're talking about the rules and if there are easier ways to get bills to the floor and still maintain the ability of the minority in the Senate to be heard, and I think that's progressing," Blunt said, in an apparent reference to changing the way motions to proceed are debated.  

But as is always the case when looking for 67 votes in the Senate, the talks could all be for naught, and aides cautioned against reading too much into the latest round of discussions.  

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also advised discretion.  

"We've been having conversations, but I've been having conversations for years," said McCain. "Sometimes we get something, sometimes we don't."  

Related: McConnell Faces More Calls for 'Nuclear Option' in Senate House GOP Keeps Pushing Changes to Filibuster Rules Senate GOP Wrestles With Whether to Undo 'Nuclear Option' See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.