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White House Supports Filibuster Reform Effort

President Obama supports the Senate rules reform effort, effectively giving a vote to reformers as they build toward a January showdown. In a statement to the Huffington Post, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer responded positively to the effort, now led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, to reform the process in the Senate.

“The President has said many times that the American people are demanding action,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “They want to see progress, not partisan delay games. That hasn’t changed, and the President supports Majority Leader Reid’s efforts to reform the filibuster process.”

“Over the past few years important pieces of legislation like the DREAM Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the American Jobs Act weren’t even allowed to be debated, and judicial nominations and key members of the administration are routinely forced to wait months for an up-or-down vote,” Pfeiffer added. “The American people deserve a United States Senate that puts them first, instead of partisan delay.”

This means more than just a White House blessing on the proceedings. The way in which Senate Democrats will change the rules at the beginning of the session comes from using what they call the Constitutional option, which involves the Majority Leader moving to change the rules, and getting a ruling from the chair in support of that change. Once the ruling goes through, the minority can appeal it, but that would occur on a majority-vote basis. After that, the rules are changed.

You need the chair to support the ruling against the filibuster, and at the beginning of the session, the Senate President, Joe Biden, will sit in that chair. So Obama’s support for filibuster reform means that Biden, in all likelihood, will rule in the affirmative. It also means that he’s likely to break a tie in favor of Reid if the ruling of the chair gets appealed, or on the underlying rules change vote. So instead of needing 51 votes to change the rules, as Kevin Drum assumes, what this likely signals is that Reid only needs 50.

A quick survey of the members of the incoming Senate Democratic caucus finds that there are already 50 votes in support without any arm-twisting. So this pretty much cements that there will be changes to the rules process, unless Democrats get cold feet. I support the changes because they would eliminate unnecessary delay in cases where Democrats do have the votes. I don’t think the changes go far enough – they still enshrine a 60-vote Senate – but there are some indications that the changes would make filibustering pretty difficult, particularly with the scheduling needs required to keep 20 members of the minority on the floor at all times during a filibuster. In addition, just the success of changing the rules with 50 votes could make the minority think twice about constant obstruction.

The Republicans are threatening to “shut down the Senate” in retaliation. They could arrange this, by demanding to use all 30 hours of post-cloture time and forcing the reading of bills and stopping committees from meeting and postponing adjournments and a host of other methods where denying unanimous consent would cause a total pile-up. But these empty threats have been made before, to little avail. And Democrats have their own tools in the majority to make life miserable for Senators (like forcing them to stay on the floor at all times, for example). I for one would love to see the bluff called here. Republican Senators want to go home for recesses too.

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David Dayen

David Dayen