Senate approves modest restrictions on filibusters

Steve Kroft discusses his impossible interview with Senate leaders who can't reach a compromise.

Updated 9:39 PM ET

WASHINGTON The tradition-laden Senate voted Thursday to modestly curb filibusters, using a bipartisan consensus rare in today's hyper-partisan climate to make it a bit harder but not impossible for outnumbered senators to sink bills and nominations, The Associated Press reported.

The rules changes were broken into two pieces and approved by votes of 78-16 and 86-9. In both roll calls, Republican opponents were joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who usually sides with Democrats. Many of the GOP "no" votes came from tea party-backed senators like Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

The two votes and a brief debate took less than an hour, impressively quick for the Senate. They came after a more typical day that featured a sprinkling of senators' speeches and long periods when the Senate chamber idled with no one talking, while private negotiations off the floor nailed down final details.

Earlier, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had tentatively agreed to a plan that would make it more difficult to hold up legislation and nominations using the filibuster.

In recent years, the number of filibusters has risen dramatically. According to the Democrats, Republicans launched more than 385 filibusters since 2007, compared to 49 from 1919 to 1970.

The filibuster is legislative jargon, but in real-person terms, it is an effort to hijack legislation. It's a commonly used tactic by senators to either block legislation from coming up for debate or being voted on. In other words, there are two points in the legislative process that a single senator can filibuster, or hold up, a bill.

In the agreement between the two leaders, a filibuster could not be used to block a bill from being debated on the floor, in effect, making every vote to begin debate on a bill a 51-vote threshold, as opposed to 60 votes when a bill is being filibustered. With the Democrats having fewer than 60 votes (55 this year, 53 last year) it was very difficult to begin debate on a filibustered bill. The new agreement, however, allows senators to be able to filibuster final passage of a bill, which would force a 60-vote threshold to move on to final passage.

Until now, use of the filibuster has been a common frustration among the majority party in the Senate - currently the Democrats, though Republicans, when they were the majority were equally as frustrated - as the minority party would often block bills they didn't like or to push their hand on a completely unrelated demand.

In exchange, the minority party would now receive the opportunity to offer two amendments to alter a bill. This appeases the Republicans who often complained that Reid would not allow them any say in the amendment process.

Another significant difference is that a senator would have to file the filibuster in person. This is a change from the current rules where a senator could, for example, be visiting troops in Afghanistan and filibuster a piece of legislation in Washington. Finally, judicial confirmations would be voted on after two hours of debate, instead of 30.

The agreement comes after months of threats by Reid to ram through dramatic changes to Senate procedures, including an idea that would require the filibustering senator to stay on the floor of the Senate and talk for the entire length of the filibuster, a la Jimmy Stewart's famous filibuster scene in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

The agreement disappoints the most enthusiastic proponents of filibuster reform. A coalition of progressive groups said the agreement is "a missed opportunity" and "[does] not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change."

"We need to make some charges in the way we operate," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said on the Senate floor today. He is one of a trio of senators who pushed for dramatic filibuster reforms, backing the "talking filibuster" and other changes that would have put the onus of blocking legislation on the minority to find 41 senators to agree instead of the majority party having to find 60 senators to overcome a filibuster.

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for