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Senate has plan to curb use of filibusters

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By Bloomberg News
Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats will pursue their plan to curb the use of filibusters to block legislation if the party doesn't reach an agreement this week with the Republican minority.

Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday he has had “positive meetings” with Republican leader Mitch McConnell on the matter.

“I hope that in the next 24 to 36 hours we can get something that we agree on,” Reid said. “If not, we're going to move forward on our own.”

Reid wants to curtail the minority party's use of the filibuster to require a supermajority of 60 votes to advance or pass legislation, rather than a 51-vote majority of the 100-member Senate. Democrats control 55 votes to 45 for the Republicans, meaning they need five Republican votes to advance most major legislation. Reid contends changes are needed to keep Republicans from obstructing bills.

The filibuster was made famous in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The title character, portrayed by James Stewart, collapses from exhaustion after speaking on the Senate floor for almost 24 hours nonstop to delay a vote on a bill during a dispute over corruption.

These days, senators seeking to block a bill don't take to the Senate floor and speak for hours on end. Instead, Senate rules allow any member to object at multiple stages in the legislative process. A measure's proponent then can start a multi-day process, known as invoking cloture, to seek the 60 votes to move forward.

A central tenet of the changes Reid has said he will seek is eliminating senators' ability to filibuster a request to bring a bill to the floor. Senate Democrats discussed potential changes at closed-door lunch on Capitol Hill today and haven't agreed on a proposal.

Reid said that if Democrats and Republicans don't reach agreement on a filibuster plan this week, he will seek to change Senate rules with a tactic that would require 51 votes rather than the usual 67 votes needed for rules changes, foreclosing the need for Republican support.

Some Democratic senators such as Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico propose requiring senators who want to filibuster a bill to hold the floor and speak until one side gives in.

President Obama's ability to carry out his second-term agenda could be in jeopardy without a rule change, Merkley told reporters.

“The president can't act on legislation if the Senate can't act on legislation,” Merkley said. “It's so important that we end the secret, silent filibuster that has plagued this body and that we reduce the number of times that any bill is subject to it.”

Merkley said he also could support a change that would require 41 senators to vote to keep a filibuster going.

“You truly have to have 41 who are willing to show up and argue that more debate is needed,” Merkley said. “You should be able to look on the floor and see if they're actually debating or not.”

Merkley backs a two-hour limit on the time senators could debate a motion to bring up legislation.

He also suggested eliminating the ability to block a request that the Senate and House form a conference committee to resolve differences between different versions of a bill.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said that “real progress” was being made on a proposal he has worked on with Michigan Democrat Carl Levin.

McConnell said in an interview earlier this month that the Levin-McCain recommendations were part of his discussions with Reid. McConnell said he was “increasingly hopeful that we will not turn the Senate into the House,” where the minority has much less ability to affect legislation.

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