Washington (CNN) – Senate Democrats, anxious to reign in what they consider abuse of the filibuster by Senate Republicans, will formally propose changes Wednesday to how and when senators can use the stalling tactic. However, Senate leaders – using their own procedural smoke and mirrors – will postpone votes on the proposals until late January at the earliest as they negotiate possible compromises to the politically contentious issue, according to Senate leadership aides from both parties.
Frustrated by Republicans’ escalating use of the filibuster, to stall even routine legislation and nominations, a group of Senate Democrats, led, in part, by first-term Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, is trying to build support for a wide-range of proposed Senate rule changes that would curb the use of filibusters but not ban them entirely
When the Senate convenes Wednesday, Udall will introduce one or more his proposals. Typically, a Senate rule change requires a super majority of 67 yes votes, something that will be difficult for Democrats, with their narrow 53-seat majority, to achieve. However, on the first legislative day of a new Congress, a simple majority of senators, just 51 votes, can approve new rules.
Republicans, who for a variety of reasons oppose most of the proposed changes, don’t dispute that Democrats can change the rules with just 51 votes on the first legislative day but an exasperated GOP leadership aide noted that “we’ve just never, ever” done it that way.
Not all Democrats support the changes either. Some senior members, who have seen control of the Senate switch back and forth, are reluctant to weaken the treasured rights provided to minority party in the Senate.
Because negotiations need time to play out, Senate leaders won’t adjourn after Wednesday’s session during which new members will be sworn in. Instead, the technical “legislative day” will be extended through at least January 24th when senators return from a two-week break. Doing so allows Democrats to preserve their ability to pass the reforms with just 51 votes if negotiations break down.
Republicans say they’ve increased the number of filibusters only because Democrats have repeatedly blocked their amendments, preventing GOP input on many key bills.
“Over the past four years, Democrats have used such gimmicks to pursue their most prized legislative goals while attempting to minimize the number of uncomfortable votes they’ve had to take,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell wrote for a Washington Post op-ed to be published Wednesday. “My Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid, has played quarterback, setting records for the number of times he has blocked Republicans from having any input on bills, cut off our right to debate and bypassed the committee process in order to write bills behind closed doors.”
Udall is considering four key proposals as part of the resolution he will offer. One would prevent filibusters to taking up a bill or on a nomination, although it will still allow filibusters to end debate on a bill. A second would eliminate so-called “secret holds” in which a senator can anonymously stall legislation or a nomination from coming to the floor. A third would require senators leading a filibuster stay on the floor and debate the issue during the entire filibuster.
A fourth proposal from Udall is aimed at appeasing GOP concerns about being locked out of the process. It would require a certain number of amendments for the minority party for any bill being debated.
Sen. Tom Harkin and other senators are expected to offer other proposals as well Wednesday.
This is not the first time the Senate has extended its first legislative day to take advantage of the lower vote threshold required to change Senate rules, according to the Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
The longest legislative day ran from January 3rd to June 12th , 1980 when then Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-WVA, successfully negotiated other changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules.