4:38 pm Jan. 24, 2013
Last month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told me she was supporting an overhaul of the Senate rules because "the abuse of the filibuster has made things impossible."
Gillibrand, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer, backed a change that would have eliminated the silent filibuster, and forced Republicans in the minority who wished to block a bill to do it on the Senate floor, in an old-fashioned "talking filibuster."
It wouldn't technically have changed the basic fact that 60 votes are needed to end debate on a given piece of legislation. But it would have been a significant change in the way the Senate functions now, forcing recalcitrant senators, if they're really determined to gum up the works, to engage in floor speeches for hours on end rather than engaging in the people's business. They'd be forced to make a very public show of their obstructionism, in other words.
Most immediately, this change might come to bear on the Senate's ability to pass some of President Obama's biggest priorities, like immigration reforms and new gun laws that don't currently have a prayer of getting over the 60-vote threshhold.
At one point, the group of reformers, all Democrats, including both New York senators, thought they had 51 votes for a so-called "nuclear option" to enact the reforms with a simple majority, over the objections of Republicans.
What they did not have, it turns out, was the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who explained to Ezra Klein today that abolishing the filibuster was a bridge too far for him, no matter what the political benefits.
“I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid said.
Reid had threatened to exercise the nuclear option, called the "constitutional option" by its supporters, but when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to some basic procedural reforms, and a gentleman's agreement to sometimes require a talking filibuster, Reid took the watered-down deal.
In theory, the agreement makes it easier for Democrats to avoid the filibuster on a motion to proceed, but as Klein points out, it still requires McConnell's consent to avoid the filibuster. At best, the changes are likely to speed some Senate business, by reducing the mandatory waiting period after cloture votes on some judicial nominations and before a bill goes to conference.
“This agreement falls short of what I hoped would move forward and was a missed opportunity for real reform," said Gillibrand, through a spokesman who said she plans to vote for the changes. "However, this agreement will help the work of the Senate become more streamlined.”
A spokesman for Schumer did not immediately return an email for comment.