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Old Bulls Don't Want to Go 'Nuclear' on Filibusters

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Levin is one of the veteran Democratic senators expressing skepticism about the process of changing the filibuster rules.

Veteran Senate Democrats agree the chamber’s rules need to be changed to break the current legislative logjam, but some fear detonating a procedural “nuclear” device that could throw the chamber into further gridlock.

There’s a general consensus on the Democratic side that Majority Leader Harry Reid should act to reduce perceived abuse of filibusters on procedural motions and on motions to go to conference, but the Nevada Democrat could face reluctance to a plan that would have him make those changes using a simple majority vote. Their trepidation could increase the incentive for Senate leaders to cut a deal and avoid a toxic standoff in January.

Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas this week have been among the most direct in expressing skepticism about that process, which could come through a parliamentary ruling from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who in theory would declare that the Constitution allows senators to set new rules at the start of the new Congress with a simple majority vote.

In an interview, Levin said that while he agrees on the substance of the changes under consideration, he was “dubious” about the procedural maneuver because it could establish a new precedent that a future majority — Democratic or Republican — could use to establish draconian rules.

“If the majority’s going to write the rules here, it becomes the House of Representatives,” Levin said. House proceedings are often governed by special rules written by that chamber’s Rules Committee, an arm of leadership that is stacked heavily in favor of the majority and almost invariably rejects minority input.

“I’m not a big fan of that,” Pryor said of the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option, adding that he has been “talking to a lot of colleagues about how to make this place run better, but ... not a fan of that approach.”

“I believe that before we go down that road we should use the existing rules to force the filibusterers to filibuster. That’s under the existing rules,” said Levin, who faced delays this week in getting the Senate to proceed to the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill (S 3254) drafted by his committee.

On that point, Levin seemed to echo Senate Republicans — including Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz. — who contend that Reid has not kept the Senate in session long enough or made full use of methods available under current rules to wear down senators seeking to filibuster.

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