Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have reached a deal to make the senate more efficient. PHOTO: AP
While it's not a sure thing yet, it seems we finally have a deal on filibuster reform. Filibustering traditionally refers to the "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" style of talking for hours on end until the opposition gives up, but that doesn't happen anymore. What does happen are parliamentary moves that prevent the Senate from accomplishing anything, which, over the last two years, was a lot of what the Senate did. Now, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have reportedly reached a deal to make changes. Filibuster reform advocates (I'm a big one) were disappointed by the final package, but we should all take heart in this fact: these reforms will make it so that the Senate spends much more of its time doing its job.
Let's deal with the bad news first: no talking filibuster and no 41 vote requirement. The "silent filibuster" remains intact, so that any Senator can slow, and often kill a bill simply by threatening to filibuster it. The most common way to filibuster a bill, by insisting that debate continue unless 60 votes are cast to end debate remains intact. Right now, the filibustering minority only needs to have one senator in the room to maintain debate and the majority needs 60 votes to end debate. Reid floated the idea of switching the burden to the minority, forcing them to continually maintain 41 senators present to vote down any motion to end debate, but that did not happen.
But, there is a lot to be happy about here. Since Obama was elected in 2008, Republicans have blocked judicial and administration nominees just because they could. Once the senate had finally voted to vote on a nominee (not a typo), Republicans would force Democrats to wait the maximum 30 hours before actually voting on the nominee. This waiting period is nominally for more debate, but in reality it was nothing more than a stalling tactic. Senators were probably using that time to make fundraising calls. With the new deal that period drops down to 2 hours, which is a massive improvement. Furthermore, the new agreement attempts (we shall see how successfully) to see to it that this time is used for actual debate.
The 60 vote threshold remains intact, but senators must now come to the senate floor to filibuster. They don't have to talk through that filibuster, but there will at least be video of them announcing the filibuster, so that if you want to block a bill that gives medical services to veterans, you have to be a little more public about it.
Another positive: more bills will get debated now. Previously senators could filibuster the motion to begin debate, and they did all the friggin time. The McConnell-Reid deal creates two new pathways to begin debate on a bill. The majority and minority leaders (Reid and McConnell) and seven senators from each party can agree to bring the bill to the floor, or the majority leader can bring the bill forward while allowing both parties to offer two amendments (Reid was in the habit of not letting Republicans offer amendments to his bills, many of which were designed to slow, kill or neuter the bill). The amendments have to be related to the bill (so no attaching an amendment to allow guns in national parks to an appropriations bill, which happened in Obama's first term), and the amendments cannot be filibustered. The bill itself still can be filibustered.
There are more details, but those are the major points. Here is the big takeaway: bills still require 60 votes to be assured of getting through the senate, but the senate will now spend more time doing its job, and many judges and government appointees will now actually get the senate's stamp of approval. Hopefully next time (2014) we can improve on that, but this is real progress, and though it's not as exciting as it could be, it's still a great step.