The who, how, and when of reforming the Senate

THE WHO, HOW, AND WHEN OF REFORMING THE SENATE…. With the 112th Congress getting ready to begin quite soon, there are multiple ideas under consideration. The details, of course, matter — it’s one thing for a wide variety of members to agree that the process no longer works; it’s something else for them to coalesce around specific changes.

But while there are competing reform ideas, there are also competing conversations about reform ideas. On the one hand, we have Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) working on an ambitious set of changes. Simultaneously, there’s a discussion underway with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who are exploring a different approach.

Brian Beutler had a helpful lay of the land today.

Here’s how this dynamic evolved. Udall along with several freshman Democrats, and even some senior Dems like Tom Harkin, have been making the case — and building support — for rules reform for many months. Their efforts have been successful enough to get just about every Democrat in the caucus on board with the idea of some kind of rules reform. […]

But there isn’t party-wide agreement on what should be reformed, or how extensive the changes should be.

That gave Reid the balance of power in this debate. Armed with the letter, and with the fact that the filibuster can be reformed on a majority-rules basis at the beginning of each Congress, he can get Republicans to negotiate under the credible threat that he and the Dems could go it alone, and change the rules more dramatically.

The likelihood of generating enough support for ending filibusters altogether is extremely remote. At this point, the three main areas that reform-minded senators are focused on are (1) prohibiting filibusters on motions to proceed, which prevent senators from even having a debate; (2) ending the practice of secret holds; and (3) forcing those filibustering legislation to actually stand on the floor and talk endlessly.

Details are scarce, but these Democratic ideas already seem excessive and unnecessary to GOP leaders.

In other words, trying to find common ground with Republicans on improving the way the chamber functions is about as easy as finding common ground with Republicans on anything else.

In the larger context, this may seem like a pretty slow week in the political world, but decisions on possible reforms are coming up very quickly — as in, next week. The Senate will reconvene on Wednesday, and immediately take up proposals dictating how the institution will work, or not work, for the next two years. Behind the scenes, there have been a slew of communications between members, but it’s almost impossible to say with any certainty how these efforts are going, or how close members are to some sort of consensus.

One angle to keep an eye on: what Vice President Biden thinks. As Amanda Terkel noted today, “First, [reform-minded senators] have to convince the Vice President that the Constitution allows senators to adopt rules on the first day of a new congressional session with just 51 votes. Then, the majority must agree on what those changes should be.”