Both the House and Senate begin their sessions at noon today. While the spectacle of Republicans reading the Constitution on the House floor (I can’t wait to see the precise moment when Boehner starts crying – I’m calling Article I, Section 4) is amusing, the real action will be happening in the Senate. There, Democrats led by Tom Udall (D-NM) will embark on what he calls “the Constitutional option.” He will introduce a motion that would allow the Senate to change its rules by majority vote. Just how he arrives at that includes a ruling from the chair, most likely Vice President Joe Biden, and a motion to table an objection, but suffice to say that if it works, 50 Senators (plus the chair) will have the opportunity to alter the Senate rules.
Just what’s in the rules package, or whether the Democrats even have a unified caucus on the changes, is up for debate. The final vote will be delayed for at least two weeks while more consensus is reached. But as of right now, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus position.
Indeed, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said the “best approach” would be to float one proposal, generate enough backing for it and eventually wait to take a vote until after the Senate’s upcoming mid-month January recess.
“I think there are a lot of mixed views at this point,” Merkley (D-Ore.), a leader of the effort, said Monday when asked about the debate inside the Democratic Caucus. “The widely shared sentiment is that the Senate is broken and that it is a responsibility of members to fix it. If you get into the details, you’ll find a bigger spectrum of views.”
We have a broad outline of that proposal, but less than an hour before the opening of the next Congress, nobody really knows what’s in it. Most people think that it would include an elimination of the filibuster on the motion to proceed, ending of secret holds, and a provision for “continuous debate,” which would in theory force the minority to actually filibuster to block legislation from cloture.
The way that Democrats would be able to come back to the rules vote later would be by extending the first “legislative day” and just recessing before the break, something that has been done in the past. However, if Dianne Feinstein’s vote is needed, it may have to extend quite a bit, because she’s about to undergo knee surgery and will not be able to travel for “a few weeks.” She may be able to come back in time for the scheduled re-opening on January 24, but it’s not entirely clear.
Democratic and Republican leaders are negotiating on the rules even while Republicans rip rule changes in public and cast them as a power grab. Chuck Schumer appears to be the point person on what form the rule changes could inevitably take. But Republicans could back off from these negotiations if they don’t believe that the Democrats have the unity to actually push through rules changes.
I would be unsurprised if absolutely nothing happens, or if something major enough to at least speed up the process in the Senate. Obstruction will not end as a result of these rules changes, nor will the 60-vote threshold for cloture, which is unfortunate; but the very act of changing the rules by majority vote could prove a powerful corrective.