Nine Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate — Tammy Baldwin (WI), Rich Carmona (AZ), Martin Heinrich (NM), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Mazie Hirono (HI), Tim Kaine (VA), Bob Kerrey (NE), Chris Murphy (CT) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) — all committed to “fix the broken Senate by reforming the filibuster” according to a fundraising pitch on their behalf by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), increasing the likelihood that the Senate will finally fix its deeply broken rules when it reconvenes with its new members this January.
Although it is unclear just what package of reforms will be on the table in January, Merkley is the leading proponent of an eight part rules reform plan that is likely to be among the leading contenders. Although many prongs of Merkley’s plan are rather modest, his most significant proposal requires a gradually escalating group of senators to be physically present on the Senate floor in order to maintain a filibuster:
The public believes that filibustering senators have to hold the floor. Indeed, the public perceives the filibuster as an act of principled public courage and sacrifice. Let’s make it so.
Require a specific number of Senators — I suggest five for the first 24 hours, 10 for the second 24 hours, and 20 thereafter — to be on the floor to sustain the filibuster. This would be required even during quorum calls. At any point, a member could call for a count of the senators on the floor who stand in opposition to the regular order, and if the count falls below the required level, the regular order prevails and a majority vote is held.
Because Merkley’s plan imposes a physical cost on senators who filibuster, it would go a long way towards eliminating the kind of widespread obstructionism that dominated the last four years. Currently, just a handful of senators can bring the Senate to a standstill by objecting to each bill or nomination that comes before the body. Then the burden falls on the majority to come up with 60 votes to break the filibuster — and even if they do, the obstructionists can still force up to 30 hours of needless delay afterwards.
The Merkley plan will not eliminate all of this needless delay. Nor will it prevent a truly determined minority from blocking a high priority item that they care a great deal about. But it will go a long way towards preventing just a small group of senators from blocking routine bills and confirmations.
When the new senators are sworn in next January, a brief window opens up when a bare majority of the Senate can reform the filibuster or eliminate it entirely.