The Filibuster Deal: Very Conventional Reform

Sam Stein and Ryan Grim of HuffPost report that Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have reached an agreement to make modest changes in the Senate rules governing filibusters:

The deal would address the filibuster on the motion to proceed, which had regularly prevented the Senate from even considering legislation and was a major frustration for Reid. The new procedure will also make it easier for the majority to appoint conferees once a bill has passed, but leaves in place the minority’s ability to filibuster that motion once — meaning that even after the Senate and House have passed a bill, the minority can still mount a filibuster one more time.

Reid won concessions on judicial nominations as well. Under the old rules, after a filibuster had been beaten, 30 more hours were required to pass before a nominee could finally be confirmed. That delay threatened to tie the chamber in knots. The new rules will only allow two hours after cloture is invoked.

Now how you evaluate this development depends largely on how you view the available alternatives. For one thing, the deal avoided the use of the “constitutional option” whereby Democrats might have imposed new rules via a majority vote. That indicates some bedrock Senate Democratic support for the existing system in all its anti-democratic enormity, as reflected in the words of an unnamed Dem staffer who told Stein and Grim that without the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, “Roe v. Wade might be dead and Social Security would be private accounts,” which is an extremely dubious interpretation of recent history.

But most of the angst we’re going to hear immediately involves the failure to include the “talking filibuster” in the reforms: the partial or total requirement that Senators undertaking a filibuster actually go to the floor to defend their position. That was clearly the chief demand of Sen. Jeff Merkley, generally regarded as the spearhead of the reform effort. But I’ve been at least half-convinced by Jonathan Bernstein that the “talking filibuster” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and might simply make filibusters more popular among conservatives happy for the opportunity to go to the floor and download the day’s talking points from Rush Limbaugh or Fox.

In any event, the main short-term effect of the deal will probably be on the nominations front, since GOP control over the House gives them a veto over the enactment of legislation with or without blocking power in the Senate. In the longer run, I doubt any reforms will matter a lot until and unless a Senate majority takes the bull by the horns and reduces the cloture threshold below the current 60 votes via the “constitutional option.” If that is indeed, as its critics call it, the “nuclear option,” today’s deal is very conventional.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.