Harry Reid
We're coming down to the wire on filibuster reform, with the Senate set to consider proposals when they meet again next Tuesday, Jan. 22. And when crunch time comes, it's not exactly unexpected that the talk will turn to compromise. It is, after all, what the Senate considers itself to do best. Even on proposals to end abuses that have made compromise impossible.

So it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that Majority Leader Harry Reid is talking middle ground:

In a locally aired interview over the weekend on a PBS affiliate in Las Vegas, Reid said he wants to require an obstructing minority of senators to occupy the floor and speak only after cloture has been invoked to begin debate. In other words, 41 senators could silently block debate from beginning, but once 60 senators vote to move to debate, filibustering senators must speak on the floor.

He also said he wants to reduce the current 30-hour delay between cloture and a final vote and shrink the number of votes required to go to conference with the House from a total of three down to one.

What's it mean? Well, on the substance, it's hard to tell. Reid isn't exactly crystal clear in his statments. But more generally, it's certainly a sign that compromise is Reid's preferred outcome. And that will mean smaller bore reforms.

What Reid seems to be describing is essentially a sort of middle ground, between the broader Merkley-Udall-Harkin proposal and the much narrower Levin-McCain proposal. Both of the previous proposals offer ways to limit debate on motions to proceed, and on the post-passage motions to go to conference when there are disagreements with the House. These are obvious and necessary reforms, and that's reflected in the fact that even the far more cautious Levin-McCain reform package targets them.

But it's not entirely clear from Reid's interview whether he'd eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed, even though that's been something he's pointed out as necessary repeatedly in the past, and even seems to hint at right in this very interview. Yet, the procedure he describes wouldn't do that, and I have no idea why not. In addition, Reid's version of the "talking filibuster" seems to say it would only kick in—at least, according to the available description of the interview—once cloture had been invoked on a motion to proceed. That makes almost no sense at all.

Post-passage motions to go to conference are treated similarly in all three proposals, which is a fine thing, or would be, if all three proposals likewise gave the Senate equal chances to actually reach the post-passage stage, which obviously isn't the case.

Finally, there's also agreement among the three proposals on eliminating most post-cloture debate.

Reid's got a lot of clarifying to do before we can fully evaluate his proposal. But we shouldn't be surprised at Reid's preference for compromise. Nor should be so discouraged by it that we give up the fight. Historically, filibuster reform has been a long, hard slog. Getting the cloture threshold lowered from two-thirds to three-fifths of the Senate happened only as the result of a long-running battle, fought in short bursts at two-year intervals over the course of more than twenty years, stretching from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s.

Nor is Reid's proposal a done deal. We can't even really tell what's in it yet, and as powerful as the voice of the Senate Majority Leader is, he's still got to sell this to the members of his caucus. And if he's truly interested in compromise, to the senators on the other side of the aisle, as well. And that means there's time to influence his direction, and the direction of any compromise talks. Not to mention the fact that compromise may yet fail, in which case, they'll need a back-up plan. Say, the one we've been pushing all along.

You know how that gets done.

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