In separate votes of 78-16 and 86-9, the Senate agreed to a deal between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., designed to prevent the minority party from using delay tactics when a bill or nomination is brought to the floor. In return, the majority party agreed to allow the minority at least two amendments to each bill.
As a symbol of the polarization in Washington, the filibuster has been deployed in record numbers in recent years -- often to extract concessions on issues unrelated to nominations. Classic filibusters often required senators to literally stand and talk for days, but in recent years filibusters have been conducted behind the scenes.
Tabulations by David Waldman, a blogger for the left-leaning Daily Kos, show 385 cloture motions were filed between 1917, when the cloture rule was established, and 1988. But the past five and a half years alone have seen 359, with Republicans in the minority.
As the Senate geared up for the 113th Congress, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., led an effort to drastically overhaul Senate rules to require senators wanting to filibuster to stand on the chamber floor before the public and speak until a 60-vote majority shuts down the talk.
The final compromise – valid through January 2015 -- includes language limiting debate on executive branch appointees and district judges. The amount of time such nominations can be delayed after an initial procedural vote is eight hours for appointees and two hours for judges, according to news reports, instead of the 30 hours allowed before.
All Maryland and Virginia senators voted for the rules change. The 16 who voted nay were Republicans, except independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
President Obama welcomed the changes as a chance to speed confirmation of both his legislative agenda and judicial nominees. “In my State of the Union last year, I urged Congress to take steps to fix the way they do business,” he said in a statement. “Today, I am pleased that a bipartisan group of Senators has agreed to take action. 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.”
Merkley said, “These steps are modest and don’t address the core problem of the secret, silent filibuster, but they do include some important elements, providing flexibility on the motion to proceed and speeding up the confirmation process on nominations.”
Udall said the deal is “not as strong what many of us have been advocating,” but added it “alters the way we deal with nominations, conference committees and motions to proceed.”
A harsher reaction came from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, newly named chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who warned that Obama’s agenda would continue to be blocked. "It's a baby step,” he told reporters Thursday before the rules were approved. "Does it help a little bit? Anything helps around here.”
The advocacy group Fix the Senate Now said that while the changes “may help with streamlining certain nominations -- potentially a significant step forward -- the agreement avoids measures that would actually raise the costs of Senate obstruction.”
Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, called the shortening of debate on nominations “an important step in its own right. The entire personnel system has far too often gotten bogged down in the Senate’s procedural swamp,” he told Government Executive. “That has not only clogged the calendar but made it hard to run the government -- or recruit good people willing to subject themselves to the process. Smoothing speed bumps on that road is unquestionably a good thing.”