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Senators Introduce Rules Resolution to Restore Senate Debate and Accountability

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) today introduced a resolution to enact meaningful Senate rules reforms that would end filibuster abuse and restore debate to the chamber.

In accordance with Article 1, section 5 of the Constitution, a majority of senators have the power to adopt or amend the operating rules of the chamber at the beginning of a new Congress, a procedure known as the Constitutional Option. Earlier today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the Senate will remain in the first legislative day of the 113th Congress after the Senate reconvenes on Jan. 22 to allow debate on the rules reforms.

The unprecedented abuse of the filibuster and other procedural rules has resulted in endless gridlock on legislation and the consideration of nominations, which made the 112th Congress one of the most unproductive of all time. The trio’s proposed reforms would protect the rights of the minority while expediting the consideration of legislation and nominations.

For a fact sheet and to read the resolution submitted by the senators, click here and here.

“We have the power to change the Senate from being a graveyard for good ideas, to an institution that can respond effectively to the challenges facing our nation,” said Udall. “Our proposal is simple, limited and fair. We make reasonable changes to nominations and conference committees and do away with the status quo of stealth and silent filibusters that prevents the Senate from getting its work done.”

”These last two years have created an unprecedented sense among the American people that Congress isn’t measuring up to the needs of our time,” Merkley said. “The filibuster, once used only on issues of personal principle, is now used as an instrument of partisan politics. It hurts our ability to take on the big challenges we face as Americans. And we need to fix it. We must put an end to the secret, silent filibuster that is haunting the Senate.”

“The abuse of the filibuster in recent years has fundamentally changed the character of the Senate and our entire system of government,” said Harkin. “While I believe that a majority of the people’s representatives should be able to act, at the very least, if the right to filibuster is going to be maintained, Senators should have to actually make arguments, debate, and deliberate. Senators should have to obstruct in public, and be held accountable for that obstructionism.”

A key component of the senators’ proposal is the “talking filibuster.”

Today, a senator can filibuster legislation or a nominee with a simple phone call. This raises the threshold for the Senate to debate a bill, or confirm a nominee, from a simple majority to three-fifths of the Senate, and the senator is not required to publicly state his or her objection. The proposed reforms will require a senator to speak on the floor in order to filibuster, greatly increasing public accountability and requiring time and energy if the minority wants to use this tool to obstruct the Senate.

To illustrate why the rules must be reformed, the senators point to the skyrocketing use of the filibuster in recent decades as a tool of the minority party to block votes on legislation, judicial vacancies and presidential appointees. Since its inception, use of the cloture vote has evolved from a rarity, perhaps seven or eight times during a congressional session, to what is now the standard of business in the Senate. Since 2006, the filibuster has been used almost 400 times.

The rules reform package includes four provisions that would do the following:

1. Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed: Clears a path to debate by making motions to proceed not subject to a filibuster, but providing two hours of debate. 

2. Require a Talking Filibuster: Forces Senators who filibuster to actually speak on the floor, greatly increasing public accountability and requiring time and energy if the minority wants to use this tool to obstruct the Senate.

3. Expedite Nominations: Reduces post-cloture debate on nominations from 30 hours to 2 hours, except for Supreme Court Justices (for whom the current 30 hours would remain intact).

4. Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Establish a Conference Committee: Reduces the steps to establish a conference committee from three motions to one, and limits debate the consolidated motion to 2 hours.

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