Senate Rules at Risk

In the midst of several year-end legislative battles, another series of skirmishes has been playing out on the Senate floor that may attract less attention but are of major consequence.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), along with numerous other Senators, are sparring over the procedures of their Chamber, the ground on which all other Senate debates are played out. Specifically at issue are Senators’ opportunities to offer amendments to bills and the tradition of unlimited debate, also known as the filibuster.

Earlier this year, Senator Reid promised to change Senate debate rules if Democrats remained in control after the election. In July, he declared, “I think what has happened the last few years of changing the basic rules of the Senate where we require not 50 votes to pass something but 60 votes on everything is wrong. I think we waste weeks and weeks on motions to proceed.”

Senator McConnell then objected, “…all this talk about rules change is just an effort to try to find somebody else to blame for the fact that the Senate has been ruled essentially dysfunctional by 62 efforts by my good friend the Majority Leader to… in effect, deny Senators, both Democrats and Republicans, the opportunity to offer any amendments he doesn’t select. That is the reason we are having this problem. So it doesn’t require a rules change, it requires an attitude change.”

The Leaders have continued to dig into their positions in the weeks after the election.  While some Senators are reportedly trying to engage in private negotiations to avoid a “nuclear option” showdown, if the Majority Leader proceeds with his plan in early January, it will significantly change the functioning of the Senate and weaken voices for minority concerns in the Chamber.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President Government Relations

Published: December 14, 2012