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Unlike Reid, Dick Durbin On Board With Senate Rules Reform

When Harry Reid said last night that he wouldn’t be advancing any legislation to amend the filibuster rules because it would require 67 votes, I thought he was referring specifically to the Harkin legislation. But in fact, he was also talking about Tom Udall’s proposed effort at the beginning of the next legislative session, an assertion contradicted by Senate precedent and Supreme Court rulings:

In his answer to reporters’ questions, Reid indicated he did not believe Udall’s approach was correct. He said “the rule change” would take 67 votes, reaffirming his previous position in 2005, when Reid fiercely defended the minority’s right to filibuster and argued that the Senate was bound by its past rules until the supermajority acted to change them.

That’s just not true, by the precept that no Congress is bound by the acts of a previous Congress, and by Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, giving the Senate the right to set its own rules. David Waldman notes this, and says:

Luckily for reform supporters, Reid’s not the final authority on the question. But he sure can make things difficult if he insists on standing in the way.

Now, if there aren’t 51 votes to be cobbled together for this thing, it won’t matter whether Reid stands in the way or not. And if there aren’t, well then, he won’t have any reason to. But if there are, then that’s another story. And in that story, the smart play is to stand aside and see what happens, because in that environment, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of a determined 51 votes, and as Majority Leader, you certainly don’t want to be on the wrong side of what would presumably be an overwhelming majority of your own caucus […]

Come January, it’s not likely that Harry Reid’s personal opinion will be driving things. The vote count alone will set the pace. And if cloture reform is something you want to see happen, it’ll be your job between now and then to make sure your Senators — whomever they may be in January 2011 — know that in no uncertain terms.

Today, we saw a break in the dam, as it were, because potential Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin signed on to the Harkin effort, effectively a proxy to signal a desired change to the rules at the start of the next Congress.

Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker confirms to me that the Senator supports the new effort, which was unveiled yesterday by Senators Tom Harkin and Jeanne Shaheen.

The Harkin proposal would officially amend the process by which a filibuster is broken, allowing a four-step process that could eventually allow it to be broken by a majority vote. The first vote would require 60 votes to break the filibuster, followed by motions requiring 57, 54, and finally, 51 votes.

The key is that Durbin is apparently playing an active role in backing the Harkin effort. A senior leadership aide tells me Durbin is “in talks with a number of other Democratic senators regarding possible changes to Senate rules.”

Chris Bowers, who has been keeping track of public statements on the filibuster, notes that public supporters now outnumber detractors. And Durbin’s leadership role provides momentum. So does today’s New York Times poll showing support for changing the Senate rules:

Three-quarters of the public disapproves of Congress, matching the highest level measured by the New York Times/CBS News Poll since it began asking the question in 1977. Four out of five voters thought Congress was more interested in serving special interests than voters.

“I think Congress and the Senate need to be completely revamped,” said Michael Wish, 30, a Democrat from Medina, Ohio. He added, “The old way of doing things is no longer working.”

Americans appear hungry for an end to partisan infighting in Washington, so much so that half of respondents said the Senate should change the filibuster rules that Republicans have used to block Mr. Obama’s agenda.

Considering that most people don’t even really understand the Senate processes and rules, that’s a big number. And with continued education, that can only grow.

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David Dayen

David Dayen