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Senate Rules Changes: Democrats Still Live in Perpetual Fear

Sam Stein brings us the latest on the rules reform negotiations in the Senate. Clearly, the plan is to find changes that can net 67 votes, and not shake up the basic structure of the broken Senate:

In the past few days and weeks, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and ranking Republican Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) have held talks on some of those measures. The result is less ambitious than the initial proposal, top Senate aides say, but more likely to attract GOP support.

Lawmakers have generally agreed that the Senate should eliminate the use of secret holds, which allow members to stop votes on nominations anonymously. They have also found some agreement on a deal that would limit the majority leader’s ability to “fill the tree,” a parliamentary maneuver to prevent the minority party from offering amendments, “in exchange for filibustering less,” a senior aide said. There also appears to be an informal deal to reduce the number of judicial and executive-branch nominations requiring confirmation.

All of those elements are contained in a package that was introduced by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in early January. What are missing, according to the top aide, are the more far-reaching suggestions, including a proposal “guaranteeing post-cloture amendment votes for each side.” There was some bipartisan agreement on scrapping that proposal, which had Democrats worried that Republicans would use it to force tough or embarrassing votes.

It all sounds voluntary and informal and incomplete except for the largely useless deal on banning secret holds. And what Jeff Merkley identified to me last week seems to be holding firm – Democrats don’t want to use the Constitutional option because they fear it will be used against them when Republicans get back the majority in the Senate. Claire McCaskill comes right out and says that in this interview:

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Uh, yeah. So, so, um, but the question is, are we willing to break what has been traditional precedent in the Senate and change the rules by a simple majority vote? And once we do that then we need to realize that it can always be done. And that means that the Republicans could do the same thing if they took the majority in two years. And we have to realize the rules they may want to change may not be as reasonable and modest as the rule changes we want. [crosstalk]

Michael Bersin, Show Me Progress: But does, but does anybody expect that, you know, given their past behavior that they wouldn’t do that anyway?

Blue Girl: Yeah.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): I think it’s really hard for them to do that anyway. I think it’s very hard. I think, um, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s kind of what happened with the nuclear option. As you remember, there was a group of Republicans that wanted to do this when Democrats, uh, were blocking Bush’s judicial nominees. And it was in fact a group of moderate Republicans that said, no, we’re not gonna do this. And it didn’t happen. If it had happened I don’t know, you know, we probably would have had some significant rule changes along the lines that a lot of people are talking about now.

I think that’s completely absurd. If those “moderate Republicans” aren’t out of the Senate (and 3 of the 7 are) they’ve grown increasingly strident and fearful of the party base. I agree with David Waldman – failing to fix the Senate now because your opponents might fix the Senate later is just a wishful thinking scenario. Republicans in the modern age simply don’t have that sense of decorum. As Waldman says, “Senate Democrats can still back away from being the ones to turn the tables. But to do so in the belief that it’ll buy them some kindness and consideration under any future Republican majorities is just crazy. More likely, it’ll just give Republicans the chance to finish what they started in 2005, but plant the story among those without institutional memory that this particular world was created in 2011.” They’ll blame Democrats for starting this conversation in 2011 whether or not the Democrats finish it.

Democrats worry so much about being in the minority, you’d think they’d act in ways that would at least put off that possibility by showing they can do their jobs in the majority.

UPDATE: Brian Beutler adds that the Senate may eliminate the rule that allows any member to force a full reading of a bill or amendment on the floor, as long as the bill or amendment has been made publicly available in a timely manner. That’s obviously a good idea, but forced readings of bills has rarely been done even in the Senate. So if anything, that just prevents a future obstruction, rather than dealing with the obstruction at hand.

I can’t say I’m surprised that Senators refused to pass rules changes limiting their own power. I just can’t believe they’re being so willfully blind in their rationalizations for why. Or rather, that they expect us to swallow that rationalization.

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David Dayen

David Dayen