Vote to Change Filibuster Rule Likely This Month

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to reporters in the Capitol after winning election by his Democratic peers as the new Senate minority leader, in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2004. Reid is quietly talking to the Senate's chief Republican about confirming at least two of President Bush's blocked judicial nominees but only as part of a compromise that would require the GOP to end its threat to eliminate judicial filibusters, officials say.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate Democrats on Wednesday unveiled their final plan for reforming the filibuster, a rule that has made it nearly impossible to pass legislation without the support of 60 out of 100 senators.

Under the reform package put forth by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, senators who filibuster must actually remain on the floor to make their case, something that they do not need to do now.

Senators also could no longer filibuster motions to proceed - the move to begin debate on legislation. That's not insignificant: It currently takes 60 votes and up to three days of precious Senate time to even start discussing a bill on the floor.

The package also mandates that senators could no longer use "secret holds" to anonymously threaten to filibuster a vote on a bill or nomination, a practice that has kept many executive and judicial branch appointees from being confirmed and has infuriated many senators. It also speeds up consideration of presidential nominees by reducing the time that must elapse between a vote to end a filibuster and a final vote from 30 hours to two hours.

In a concession to skeptical Republicans, the proposal includes a guarantee that the minority party can offer "germane" amendments to all legislation. Republicans have complained that they need the filibuster because Democrats have often pushed through legislation without giving them a chance to amend it. Doing so allows a majority party to both expedite passage of legislation and avoid "poison pill" amendments that require members to cast embarrassing votes.

A summary of the proposal notes that the use of the filibuster by the (in this case, Republican) minority has risen dramatically since 2006.

"Blocking a vote with a filibuster used to be rare and reserved for extreme situations," the proposal says. "Today, major bills, non-controversial bills, sometimes multiple steps on the same piece of legislation, and even non-controversial nominees face filibusters. There have been more filibusters since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980."

While the resolution was put forward today, a vote is not likely until the week of January 24th, following a two-week recess, CBS News Capitol Hill Producer John Nolen reports. It is too early to tell if there are enough votes to pass the measure.

Ironically, this is one of the few measures that could pass with a simple majority - not the filibuster-proof 60 votes or the two-thirds vote generally necessary to change Senate rules. That's because the Constitution allows the Senate to set its rules on the first day of a session by simple majority vote. Wednesday was that first day.

How, then, can Democrats drag the vote out until late January? In a nice illustration of the byzantine nature of the chamber's rules, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can "recess" the session at the end of the day, effectively extending that first day until the vote later this month.

The reason for the delay in holding the vote, it appears, is that even some Democrats -- perhaps fearful of a weakened filibuster if and when they are in the minority -- are skeptical of making changes to the rule. Democrats who back the reforms thus plan to spend the next few weeks trying to bring them around.