Colorado Senate Primary Could Shape The Face of Senate Rules Reform

Senator_Michael_BennetYesterday, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) won a tough victory over primary challenger Andrew Romanoff.  The showdown between Bennet and Romanoff, however, reveals as much about a growing consensus among relatively new Democratic senators and senate candidates as it does about any differences between the two candidates. Both Bennet and Romanoff supported ambitious plans to reform the Senate Rules and limit the impact of filibusters.

Under current Senate Rules, no vote can be taken on a bill or nominee unless 60 senators agree to end debate on that matter. Moreover, even after 60 senators successfully break a filibuster by invoking “cloture,” the rules still provide for up to 30 hours of post cloture debate. Although the 60 vote requirement is the most well-known aspect of the filibuster, the 30 hours of post-cloture debate is actually a biggest obstacle to completing routine Senate business. Presently, for example, the White House lists 240 nominees awaiting confirmation in the Senate. At 30 hours of debate per nominee, the Senate would have to spend 300 days of floor time to confirm each nominee — and that’s assuming that the senators canceled all recesses, worked 24/7, and passed no bills whatsoever.

Bennet’s proposal for rules reform is significant because it would address both of these issues:

  • Making Cloture the Default Rule: Presently 60 senators must affirmatively vote to end a filibuster, while the minority can stay at home and still successfully block a bill or nominee. Bennet’s proposal flips this presumption. If the minority wants to obstruct a vote, they would be required to present 41 votes to maintain a filibuster.
  • More Senators To Maintain a Filibuster: When no members of the majority caucus support a filibuster, Bennet’s proposal would allow that filibuster to be cut short unless 45 senators agree to prevent a vote.  If a member of the majority caucus supports a filibuster, the vote threshold would still be raised to 45 senators if 3 members of the minority caucus oppose the filibuster.
  • Cutting Post-Cloture Debate Short: Bennet’s proposal would allow 60 senators to change the length of post-cloture debate, thus allowing largely uncontroversial matters to move forward without obstruction.
  • Restricting “Holds”: Finally, Bennet’s proposal would limit individual senator’s power to place a “hold” on a nominee or bill.  Most significantly, it would prevent a senator from maintaining a hold for a signficant period of time unless at least one member of both caucuses agree to the hold.

Of course, it remains to be seen what, if any, reform proposal will reach the Senate floor when the newly-elected senators take their seats next January. The Constitution permits the Senate to amend its rules with only 51 votes on the first legislative day of a new Congress, but this window closes for two years if the senators do not act then.