For weeks, Democratic senators have been crafting a filibuster reform package that, if it resembles the reforms embraced by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), will include reforms that prevent the minority from imposing hours of needless delay every time a new nominee is confirmed, and which will also include the so-called “talking filibuster” that requires supporters of a filibuster to speak on the floor in order to maintain it.
Opponents of reform have now offered a counterproposal — and, according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), it essentially amounts to doing nothing:
Alexander, emerging from a bipartisan meeting of reform opponents held this morning in Kyl’s office, said that the proposal would limit the use of the filibuster in some cases, such as on a motion to proceed to debate, and also include provisions allowing for amendments for the minority.
“We have so many new members of the Senate, about half of the senators have never seen the Senate work properly because they’ve only been here five or six years,” Alexander said. “So we’re trying to get back to the days when the motion to proceed wasn’t used to block so many bills and when the majority leader allowed senators to offer almost any amendment. Most of that has to be established by practice, by good behavior, rather than by changing the rules.”
By limiting filibusters on motions to proceed, this proposal will restrict the minority from effectively filibustering the same bill twice, but it does nothing to prevent the minority from filibustering any bill they can filibuster now. It also does nothing to prevent widespread obstruction of judicial and other nominees. And it does nothing to discourage senators from filibustering routine bills or uncontroversial nominees simply to delay or to gain leverage. If this counterproposal passes in lieu of the more meaningful proposals endorsed by Sen. Reid and others, it will mean that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will remain the king of the Senate, and senators in the majority will still need to beg his permission in order to accomplish anything.
And any senator who votes in favor of this counterproposal and against the more substantial proposals on the table is voting to give McConnell that power.
A copy of the counterproposal is now available here. Although the full proposal is broader than Sen. Alexander’s previous statement suggested it is still very unambitious in scope. The main components of the counterproposal are:
- Shifting Power To Mitch McConnell: The counterproposal provides that when the Majority Leader, the Minority Leader and five other senators from each party support allowing debate to begin on a bill, then the minority loses most of its ability to force time to be wasted once 60 senators agree to break a filibuster. The upshot of this is that a handful of rogue senators will no longer be able to force much of the needless delay they are able to do so now — but only if the Minority Leader signs on to taking away their power. In other words, it is a transfer of power from Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
- Some Streamlining Of Nominations: The amount of delay minority senators can force after a filibuster is broken on district court nominees is reduced from 30 hours to 2 hours, and it is eliminated entirely for sub-cabinet officials in the executive branch. Obstructionists can still force the full 30 hours of delay for court of appeals judges, cabinet-level officers, or Supreme Court justices. This is the most significant part of the counterproposal, and would be a real improvement over the status quo on confirmations — even if there is no good reason why cabinet officials and judges should be subject to needless delay.
- Good For Two Years Only: The counterproposal’s minor reforms are enacted through a “standing order” not an actual change to the Senate Rules. It also provides that many of its reform “would sunset at the end of the 113th Congress,” although the counterproposal is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this sunset would apply to the streamlining of nominees.