The Senate stood ready Thursday to reject an effort to restrict filibusters, those familiar blockades that sew gridlock and discord. Instead, the Senate's leaders announced a gentleman's agreement for minority Republicans to block fewer bills and nominations in exchange for a guarantee of more chances to amend legislation.
The agreement described by Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell was part of a package of measures aimed at making the Senate a more workable and less contentious place. It also included support of a resolution, to be voted on later in the day, to end the practice of one senator being able to secretly block votes and a rules change that would slash by a third the number of presidential appointments that need Senate approval.
The full Senate, meanwhile, prepared to vote against proposals by several Democrats that would put more formal restrictions on the right of the minority to hold up or block bills and nominations through filibusters.
The Senate has been plagued in recent years by procedural delays, often the result of partisan differences, and public displeasure with Congress was a key factor in the fall midterm elections that saw Republicans recapture the House and increase their strength in the Senate. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 69 percent of the people disapprove of Congress and only 26 percent view it favorably.
Reid, D-Nev., defended the central premise of the filibuster, saying debate without time limits was "in our DNA" in the Senate. But he also said, "We have to act because when abuses keep us from doing our work, they deter us from working together and they stop us from working for the American people."
He said he and McConnell would both avoid use of the so-called "constitutional option" where the majority could change filibuster and other Senate rules with a simple 51-vote majority in the 100-member chamber.
McConnell said he was optimistic that he and Reid could "convince our colleagues that we ought to get back to operating the Senate the way we did as recently as three or four years ago, when bills came up and they were open for amendment, and we voted on amendments, and at some point the bill would be completed."
Republicans have defended their use of the filibuster - which requires a supermajority of 60 votes to overcome and can effectively kill many bills - saying it was in response to Democrats limiting the number of amendments they could offer to bills.
The deal focuses only on filibusters pertaining to "motions to proceed," or attempts to bring a bill or a nomination to the Senate floor. The compromise did not extend to filibusters that block efforts to cut off debate and bring a bill to a final vote.
Reid said that in the past Congress Republicans forced 26 votes just to get bills to the floor, often with the primary goal, he said, of stalling Senate activities. Some, he said, were on non-controversial bills that eventually passed by overwhelming majorities. It can take weeks to get a bill to a final vote if the minority uses all its filibuster authority.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who has led an anti-filibuster campaign with Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, applauded what he called the "modest" steps taken by the two leaders. But he said it removed only one of three 60-foot walls that now stand in the way of getting legislation through the Senate. In addition to the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters on motions to proceed, there can also be filibusters on amendments and on ending debate.
"How much will it really change for this Senate?" he asked.
Reid and McConnell said the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would be asked to put together legislation on reducing appointments subject to Senate confirmation, now about 1,400, by about one-third. The confirmation process can take months, subject nominees to exhausting investigations, eat up Senate time and be used by senators as leverage to advance other causes.
They also agreed that the practice of disgruntled senators forcing the reading clerk to read out amendments in their entirety, a delaying tactic that can take hours, will be done away with.
The announcement preceded five votes on procedural changes. Most likely to succeed was a resolution that would effectively end the practice of secret "holds," where a single senator, without revealing his or her name or motive, can block votes on legislation or nominations.
Under the proposal long pushed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and also sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., senators would have to make public their objections within 48 hours of placing them and could no longer baton-pass their holds to other senators to avoid having to reveal themselves.
Holds, which require 60 votes to overcome, have become a common practice by senators trying either to block nominations or push some political point.
Headed for likely defeat were resolutions by Udall, Merkley and Harkin to end filibusters on motions to bring bills to the Senate floor, gradually decrease the votes needed to overcome a filibuster as debate progresses and require those conducting filibusters to remain on the Senate floor and continue talking.
Merkley noted that when the Senate acted in 1975 to restrict delaying tactics, it followed two years in which there were 44 filibusters. This year, he said, follows a two-year session in which there were 135.
"Reform is not for the short-winded, " Udall said, adding, "I'm committed to making sure the Senate is more than just a graveyard for good ideas."
Republicans were united in opposing formal limits to filibusters, and many Democrats, foreseeing the possibility that they could be in the minority after the 2012 election, were also not enthusiastic.
© 2011 The Associated Press.