The Path to Filibuster Reform

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At a “progressive media summit” today, Harry Reid laid out a vision for filibuster reform. Sam Stein reports:

Reid’s embrace of filibuster reform comes after he previously threw cold water on the likelihood of getting the rules changed. His reference to the “next Congress” stands out. To change Senate rules in the middle of the session requires 67 votes, which Democrats clearly don’t have. But changing the rules at the beginning of the 112th Congress will require the chair to declare the Senate is in a new session and can legally draft new rules. That ruling would be made by Vice President Joe Biden, who has spoken out against the current abuse of the filibuster. The ruling can be appealed, but that appeal can be defeated with a simple majority vote.

To spell this out a bit, the issue has to do with the ambiguity over whether or not the Senate starts anew each time a new Senate is convened. To change the Senate’s rules takes 67 votes. But one way of looking at it is that after each election you have a brand new Senate that needs to adopt a set of rules and can do so by majority vote. That’s always been a controversial proposition, but there’s precedent in terms of rulings from Nelson Rockefeller when he was VP and the filibuster was last reformed. The model isn’t necessarily that you force a change through with 50 votes plus the VP.

The way this actually worked in the mid-seventies was that the threat to proceed with 50 votes, plus the reality that support for reform was growing, created incentives for Senators to reach a compromise.