EXCLUSIVE: Sen. Merkley Gives Progressives Reason To Be Optimistic About Filibuster Reform

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that he was “wrong” to oppose filibuster reform in 2011, he named two senators as “prophetic” advocates of reform, Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). These two senators will now play a key role in shaping the filibuster reform package that Senate Democrats ultimately bring to the Senate floor next month. In an exclusive interview with ThinkProgress, Sen. Merkley laid out what he believes that package will include and what he hopes to add to it. His remarks should give progressives hope.

Merkley began the interview by endorsing two reforms that it was already clear would be included in the reform package this January: eliminating the minority’s ability to filibuster the same bill more than once and requiring a senator to speak on the floor in order to maintain a filibuster. Reid already publicly endorsed both of these proposals. Yet, as ThinkProgress has explained, they are not sufficient in and of themselves to prevent widespread obstructionism.

Sen. Merkley, however, listed several other reforms he would like to include in the final package that, together with the two Reid has already endorsed, add up to something quite meaningful. Under current Senate rules, the minority can force up to 30 hours of floor time to be wasted even after a supermajority of the Senate votes to break a filibuster on a nominee. And while 30 hours may not seem like a lot, when they are multiplied across the hundreds of nominees a president must confirm, these 30 hours enables the minority to literally force the Senate to waste years of precious work time doing nothing but confirming judges and executive branch officials. These 30 hours are likely the single greatest tool an obstructionist minority possess, and Senate Republicans wielded this tool to great effect in order to block President Obama’s nominees.

Merkley called for eliminating this opportunity for obstruction completely:

Two years ago, the package that Tom Udall and I put together included reducing those 30 hours to 2 hours, so people could make a final comment as their colleagues were about to vote. And something like that is appropriate. I think it could even be appropriate to go to zero hours, and here’s why: it takes two days for a cloture petition to “ripen.” What that means is that, by the time you file it, and its all public, you have to wait until the day after an intervening day. And so there’s plenty of time for people to make their final case once that petition is there. So if you reduce it to zero hours, you can have a series of cloture petitions and a series of votes that no one could basically — on a Thursday night or a Friday night you could go through a whole series of judges.

Watch it:

This is a serious proposal, and it would do more to restore the Senate’s ability to function than anything else that has been seriously discussed since the election. So long as John Boehner controls the House, there is little the Senate can do to pass legislation over Republican objections. Merkley’s proposal to eliminate these 30 hours of delay, however, would completely strip away one of the current minority’s favorite tactics — filibustering nominees they don’t even oppose.

Merkley named two other reforms he would also like to include. One of the most non-nonsensical aspects of the Senate’s current rules is that they effectively allow a single senator to silently begin a filibuster, and then go home and sit in their recliner while the majority has to race around trying to find 60 affirmative votes to break that filibuster. Merkley endorsed a “terrific idea” by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) to require the “minority to have to show that they have 41 senators who want to continue” with a filibuster. Thus shifting the burden from the majority to the obstructionists.

In a similar vein, Merkley also called for the minority to show a minimal amount of support before a filibuster could occur. Currently, it takes 60 votes to get nearly anything done in the Senate, but it takes 100 votes to get anything done without enormous amounts of delay. Merkley would address this problem by requiring 5 to 10 senators to sign a “petition to start a filibuster” before such delay could occur. This would have the added bonus of placing those senators on record as the ones responsible for a filibuster, rather than permitting the kind of secrecy that pervades the Senate now.

Merkley did throw cold water on two ambitious proposals favored by many supporters of strong filibuster reform. He was clear that an excellent proposal he floated last year, which would require up to 20 senators to remain on the Senate floor at all times to maintain a filibuster, would not happen because of too much opposition from his colleagues. He also expressed doubt that a proposal by President Obama to give each nominee an up or down vote within 90 days would make it into the final package — although he did not rule out setting such a deadline if a supermajority of 60 senators was still required to move the nomination forward.

Nevertheless, the full package of reforms Merkley laid out yesterday add up to a very serious proposal that would curb many of the current minority’s worst abuses of the Senate rules, remove most of the blockade facing judicial and executive branch nominees, and transfer some of the pain of filibustering onto the people responsible for the filibuster. And Merkley appeared quite optimistic that filibuster reform will pass this year.

Two years ago, a package that included several of Merkley’s proposals received 44 of the 51 votes necessary to amend the Senate rules at the opening of a new Senate. That time, Merkley explains, “we didn’t have the support of leadership.” Merkley explains. This time, however, the most powerful man in the Senate has already taken to the floor to apologize for opposing Merkley’s first effort, and Merkley and the Senate leadership are working together closely to design the final package.

Watch the full interview with Sen. Merkley: