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Udall-Merkley-Harkin Senate Rules Reform Package Released

Tom Udall has released the Senate rules reform package that he will introduce today for a vote, which he believes he can get passed with a simple majority. It includes most of the features that had been bandied about throughout the last couple weeks. Here are the highlights:

• Eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed: this would immediately cut down the time for legislation to get to a final vote in half. There would be no filibuster refusing to end debate just to bring a motion up for debate. It’s intuitive to eliminate this provision, and I find it as meaningful as anything in this rules package.

• Eliminating Secret Holds: basically, all holds on legislation would have to have the name of a Senator attached to it. While secret holds have been used in the past, I don’t think this will really prevent Senators from putting holds on legislation or nominations. They’ll continue to do so. We’ll have a name for the obstruction, which is nice, but it’s not a major deal.

• “Right to Amend”: This is something that wasn’t in many of the debates, but I think it’s pretty good policy. It “protects the rights of the minority” to allow germane and timely amendments to legislation, by reducing the ability for the Majority Leader to “fill the amendment tree.” This has in recent days become the main objection for Republicans to changing the rules, claiming that it’s the Democrats who have obstructed legislation by refusing to give Republicans the opportunity to get a vote for amendments. This rules change would guarantee that right, and neuter this Republican objection. It also should be how things are done, getting the legislature to the business of legislating. If an amendment is distasteful, Senators have the ability to vote against it.

• The “talking filibuster”: This would make it more difficult for the minority to pull off a filibuster. Senators opposed to cloture would have to continue debate and hold the floor as long as the issue being filibustered was the pending business. If they gave up the floor, cloture would be invoked. This makes it harder to keep up a “real” filibuster, and easier to drop it. It doesn’t change the 60-vote threshold, but thrusts filibusters out into the open.

• Reducing post-cloture time for nominees: This is a big deal. Post-cloture time on nominees would be reduced from 30 hours to 2 hours. That’s completely sensible. There are no amendments to debate on a nominee; either they get confirmed or not. This reduction of post-cloture time will make it much easier to get nominees confirmed, because nominations would take up significantly less floor time.

So, that’s the Udall-Merkley-Harkin reform proposal. I’ve put the whole thing on the flip. [cont’d]

Sen. Udall’s office sent out a series of newspaper editorials in support of the changes. But they would do better to put pressure on the Democrats in their midst. Despite there being a claim of full party unity for changes to the rules, at least one Senator is off the reservation:

Nelson told a local media outlet that he has reservations about efforts by his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to change rules surrounding the filibuster, a key procedural tactic used by Republicans to slow down or block pieces of legislation.

“The last thing we need to do is start changing rules, with 51 votes and simple majority, and make the Senate a smaller version of the House,” Nelson told the Omaha World-Herald.

Fortunately, this proposal would do nothing of the kind. It would make the Senate more functional, but still give a lot more rights to the minority (more than I think are necessary) than in the House. So I guess Nelson has nothing to worry about, right?

Here’s the full list of proposed changes:

Udall-Harkin-Merkley Rules Reform Package
Blocking a vote with a filibuster used to be rare and reserved for extreme situations. Today, major bills, non-controversial bills, sometimes multiple steps on the same piece of legislation, and even non-controversial nominees face filibusters. There have been more filibusters since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980.
Senate rules are supposed to allow for substantive debate and to protect the views of the minority – as our founders intended. Instead, they are abused to prevent the Senate from ever voting on, and sometimes even debating, critical legislation.
Our reform resolution helps increase transparency, restores accountability, and fosters debate.
• Clear Path to Debate: Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed
Makes motions to proceed not subject to a filibuster, but provides for two hours of debate. This proposal has had bipartisan support for decades and is often mentioned as a way to end the abuse of holds.

• Eliminates Secret Holds
Prohibits one Senator from objecting on behalf of another, unless he or she discloses the name of the senator with the objection. This is a simple solution to address a longstanding problem.

• Right to Amend: Guarantees Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority
Protects the rights of the minority to offer amendments following cloture filing, provided the amendments are germane and have been filed in a timely manner.

This provision addresses comments of Republicans at last year’s Rules Committee hearings. Each time Democrats raised concerns about filibusters on motions to proceed, Republicans responded that it was their only recourse because the Majority Leader fills the amendment tree and prevents them from offering amendments. Our resolution provides a simple solution – it guarantees the minority the right to offer germane amendments.

• Talking Filibuster: Ensures Real Debate
Following a failed cloture vote, Senators opposed to proceeding to final passage will be required to continue debate as long as the subject of the cloture vote or an amendment, motion, point of order, or other related matter is the pending business.

• Expedite Nominations: Reduce Post-Cloture Time
Provides for two hours of post-cloture debate time for nominees.

Post cloture time is meant for debating and voting on amendments – something that is not possible on nominations. Instead, the minority now requires the Senate use this time simply to prevent it from moving on to other business.

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David Dayen

David Dayen