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Harry Reid Is Torn On The Filibuster


A “generational fight” in the Senate between Old Bulls and impatient liberals. Changes will “establish a precedent in the Senate … that our Democratic colleagues will have to endure,” warns McConnell.

Image by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed Democratic plans to rework the chamber's filibuster rules, bluntly warning that Republicans will use the same tactics on Democrats when they control the chamber.

“Such a rules change won’t do them any good in the short term. The House is in the hands of the Republicans,” McConnell said in a floor speech Monday, adding that “it will do the institution irreparable damage in the long term and will establish a precedent in the Senate for breaking the rules to change the rules that our Democratic colleagues will have to endure when they are in the minority.”

Since Democrats retook the Senate in 2006, newer Democrats — including liberal Sens. like Sheldon Whitehouse — have increasingly become unhappy with the pace of action in the Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues have had progress on even mundane measures stalled thanks to Republicans’ success in using the chamber’s existing rules to slow walk legislation, drawing out debate for days and weeks on noncontroversial measures and burning precious legislative time off the clock.

That is not to say that Republicans are solely to blame for the collapse of comity in the chamber. Reid has consistently used procedural tricks of his own to block “message” amendments offered by Republicans that would put the dwindling number of moderates in his conference in a difficult position.

The situation has set up a “generational fight” within Reid’s conference, as one veteran Senate hand put it.

On the one side is his impatient, liberal wing made up of newer lawmakers who have not become steeped in the chamber’s tradition as the “cooling saucer” of the legislative process.

These lawmakers argue that at a minimum, Reid should ram through new rules requiring lawmakers to stand on the floor and conduct “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”–style filibusters if they want to block progress on bills.

But to do so, Reid would need to bypass traditional rulemaking procedures, which require a supermajority vote of the chamber, and implement the changes using a simple vote majority.

On the other side of Reid are the “Old Bulls,” veterans of decades of Senate service who prize the chamber’s stately reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body.

The Old Bulls bristle at the idea of changing the chamber’s rules, particularly if it means bypassing the traditional way of changing them, as their younger colleagues have argued for.

Such a scenario would set a precedent for the future, and while reform advocates attempt to downplay its impact, the reality is that it could open the floodgates for Republicans.

“Republicans will take it places we’d never think of, especially on judges,” one former Democratic leadership aide warned, warning that liberals could wake up one day “with a bunch of right-wing wackos on the bench.”

Indeed, the very procedural tactics Republicans have used to great effect the last two years were used, albeit far less regularly, by Reid and Democrats during the Bush administration to block a number of bills, and the GOP insist they have simply refined the practice.

Multiple sources familiar with Reid’s thinking said Reid, a longtime appropriator and master of manipulating the rules in his own right, has generally sided with the Old Bulls, although he has used the threat of filibuster reform as rhetorical weapon in the past.

But, as the former aide noted, “The Senate is changing … Reid’s on that cusp of trying to walk the fine line between the older guys who think it’s really bad and the younger guys.”

That said, Democratic insiders acknowledge that the pressure on Reid is becoming untenable and that some sort of effort to change the rules now appears certain.

Ironically, McConnell’s threat came during a particularly productive time in the Senate as Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain have put on a legislative clinic over the defense authorization bill — a fact that was not lost on McConnell.

“It doesn’t have to be this way in the Senate, of course,” McConnell said. “Sens. Levin and McCain are reminding those of us who’ve been here a while and showing those who haven’t that it’s possible for the Senate to actually legislate. We’re in the process of doing that right now.”

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