In its first votes of the 113th Congress, the Senate adopted several rule changes designed to make it easier to bring bills and nominations to the floor for a vote. The changes, which were broken into two separate resolutions, were based on a bipartisan agreement reached between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV-D) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY-R) in response to a growing chorus of calls for filibuster reform.
It is hoped that the new rules, though modest, will help to some extent to break the legislative logjam that characterized the last Congress and to action on the Senate floor. In recent years, the minority party’s use of the filibuster ― in which any senator can stall a vote and demand a supermajority of 60 votes to pass almost any bill ― rose dramatically. Senate Democrats claim that Republicans have launched more than 385 filibusters since 2007, compared to 49 from 1919 to 1970.
In the action on January 24, senators approved S.Res. 16 by a vote of 86 to 9. The resolution permanently changes the Senate rules to move legislation to the floor faster. If the majority leader, the minority leader, and seven senators of from each side of the aisle sign a petition to proceed to a vote on a bill, the Senate can hold a vote to invoke cloture (end debate) and proceed immediately to a vote. This will eliminate the 30 hours of debate time that typically has been required.
The other resolution, S.Res. 15, which the Senate adopted 78 to 16, is a “standing order,” meaning that its provisions are not permanent and will expire at the end of the current Congress. The measure allows the majority leader to avoid a filibuster on motions to proceed if he guarantees that the minority party will be able to offer two amendments to the bill under consideration. Thus, Republicans will no longer be able to kill a bill before it has even been debated, and Democrats will lose some of their ability to block Republicans from amending bills on the Senate floor. Senators will still be able to filibuster final passage of a bill, however.
S.Res. 15 also allows the nomination process to proceed more quickly by limiting post-cloture debate on Federal nominations (other than for senior officials, such as Cabinet members and Supreme Court Justices) to a maximum of eight hours. Previously, some nominations could take a week to confirm.
Those who supported the rules changes predict that they will result in a more efficient Senate. President Obama praised the bipartisan action, stating: “Too often over the past four years, a single senator or a handful of senators has been able to unilaterally block or delay bipartisan legislation for the sole purpose of making a political point. At a time when we face critical decisions on a whole range of issues ― from preventing further gun violence, to reforming our broken immigration system, to getting our fiscal house in order and creating good paying jobs ― we cannot afford unnecessary obstruction.”
Others expressed disappointment that the rule changes did not go far enough and that they left too many loopholes in place to be effective. As the 113th Congress gets underway, it will soon become apparent to what extent the new Senate rules will make a difference.