Senators pitch filibuster alternative

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., held a joint press conference Friday. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., held a joint press conference Friday. Susan Walsh/AP

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan teamed up on Friday to present to their respective caucuses a last-ditch proposal to avert a controversial Senate showdown over filibuster rules.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has threatened to change the Senate’s filibuster rules next year to make it harder for the minority to stop legislation. And Reid has said he is willing to implement the rule change with a simple 51-vote majority when the 113th Congress convenes for the first time in January — a maneuver known within the cozy confines of the Senate as the “nuclear option.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., claimed on Wednesday that Reid had secured the 51 votes needed to use the “nuclear option.” That threat has spurred bipartisan talks for a less-severe alternative.

McCain said on Friday that Reid jamming through a partisan rule change would be a “disaster” for the Senate. He and Levin are part of a bipartisan group of senators who have crafted an alternative plan that includes no formal rule changes but instead the adoption of new procedures through a “standing order.” 

In essence, the McCain-Levin compromise would empower the Senate majority leader to curtail the minority’s ability to block legislation from coming up for vote. A minority could still prevent passage of a measure: In exchange, the minority would be guaranteed that it could offer at least some amendments to bills. The proposal would also require that senators actually appear on the floor to instigate a filibuster instead of simply calling from their offices as they can now.

In recent years, GOP filibusters have become the norm in the Democratic-controlled Senate. In response, Reid has sharply limited the ability for Republicans to offer amendments to bills, protecting vulnerable Democrats from taking unpopular votes.

In tandem, the procedural arms race has led to crippling gridlock, both sides acknowledge.

As the fiscal cliff looms, the “Senate cliff” — as McCain termed the procedural filibuster fight — has gained attention in the Capitol corridors. Senate rules are set on the first day of a new session, which will be next week.

Neither McCain nor Levin presented their plan as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, but instead as a “recommendation” (Levin’s word) or a “template” (McCain’s term) to reach a compromise.

“Both leaders have expressed appreciation for our work,” McCain said, expressing hope that “old geezers like us” could head off a procedural war that could poison any chance of bipartisanship on the very first day of the new Congress.

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