In filibuster deal, a glimpse of how the Senate could actually work

The filibuster deal to avoid the Senate's 'nuclear option' showed that when senators actually talk to each other (a rare thing nowadays), they’re not so bad at figuring things out. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Senate majority leader Harry Reid gestures as he speaks to the media as lawmakers moved toward resolving their feud over filibusters of White House appointees on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The “world’s greatest deliberative body” may have found a partial cure for gridlock: actual deliberation.

True, this week’s Senate’s showdown over the “nuclear option” that would have jarringly changed Senate filibuster rules was ugly, with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada riding his threat to go nuclear all the way to the brink, before a last-minute deal defused a crisis that threatened to stall the Senate until 2015.

But the dialogue away from the public's eyes in the Old Senate Chamber Monday that brought about the deal about also revealed something promising: When senators actually talk to one another, it seems, they’re not so bad at figuring things out.

The accord settled few of the underlying issues rankling members on both sides of the aisle. But many members said sharing different perspectives helped drive a consensus among the rank-and-file that the two party leaders should work toward a solution instead of allowing the chamber to go nuclear.

“Both sides understand each other better. We've taken great strides to restore the comity and cooperation that used to define this great institution,” said Senator Reid on Tuesday. “We have a new start for this body, and I feel very comfortable with it. I don't know how I could be happier.”

“Put this down as progress in the right direction and the best possible atmosphere to go into the balance of the year when we have much tougher issues to deal with down the road,” concurred Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

The stage was set Monday, a day when Reid and Senator McConnell were at each other’s throats on the Senate floor. Democrats threatened to change the Senate rules with only a bare majority of senators, a move institutionalists feared would be the beginning of the end of minority rights in the upper chamber and Senator McConnell vowed would make Reid go down as the worst leader in Senate history.

Nearly all the members gathered in the Old Senate Chamber (last used when there were only 66 senators) to talk about the rules. Some three dozen members rose to speak.

"All intently listening to each other, you could hear a pin drop,” says Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon, a leading champion of changing the Senate’s rules. “It enabled people to understand the differing viewpoints.”

While that achievement may sound modest, it addressed an increasingly important issue: The day-to-day existence of United States senators does not allow for much across-the-aisle discussion nowadays.

When senators aren’t raising money, working on legislation, or flying to and from their sometimes far-flung home states, they spend most of their so-called "debate" time on the Senate floor “speaking to a void,” Senator Merkley says. “We’re speaking to a camera, we’re speaking to our constituents. But there’s no one there to listen to us among our colleagues.”

 While senators try to make up for that lack of contact with snippets of conversation on the Senate floor during votes or after the weekly lunches, where members dine with their own party colleagues, that amounts to “a fractured conversation and you have to pursue it with great diligence,” Merkley says.

Even more problematic, senators in both parties acknowledged, is that the two parties understand the basic facts of an issue in fundamentally different ways.

“In two caucuses, it’s like two tribes,” Merkley explains, “you hear different versions of the facts. History is sliced differently.”

The debate over Senate rules was no exception. Lugging an annotated copy of the Senate rules into the chamber, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee made the case that not a single Supreme Court Justice, cabinet member, or district court judge had ever been blocked by a filibuster in American history.

“Part of the problem is we have too many [caucus] lunches and we operate on different facts,” Senator Alexander says. “In many ways, this is a manufactured crisis.”

Still, he acknowledges that five of President George W. Bush's circuit court judges were blocked by Democrats in a showdown that nearly sent Senate Republicans to the nuclear option lever. Republicans blocked two of President Obama's circuit court judges in retaliation, he says.

For most of the Senate’s history, Democrats counter, there were no filibusters of nominees to the executive branch -- yet Mr. Obama has seen 16. Democrats charge Republicans had delayed nominees that would eventually receive overwhelming Senate support for months on end and had stalled nominees as a way to undercut government agencies they simply don’t like, such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Both sides' arguments are, in their own ways, tendentious. Alexander's analysis ignores the bevy of other procedural tools minority senators can use to block nominees without resorting to a formal filibuster, such as secret holds on presidential nominees. Democrats play down the many ways recent majority leaders have used their powers to limit traditionally open floor debate to exclude minority party concerns, aggravating Republicans who feel cut out of the Senate's business.

Merkley, summing up Monday’s meeting to reporters on Tuesday, quoted to a line from the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If”: “Trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”

That’s not to say everything that happened in the Senate Monday night was poetic: Things got awful “repetitious,” as Sen. Mike Johanns (R) of Nebraska put it.

Republicans like Alexander still felt that Democrats didn’t understand the severity of their threat to the very underpinnings of the Senate. Democrats didn’t exactly feel like Republicans felt their pain on the sluggish pace of the chamber.

And lawmakers on both sides said much of the discussion focused on lawmakers venting their frustration about filibusters against legislation, even though Reid said he had “zero” intention of changing anything about how laws pass through the Senate. (Reid threatened only to allow presidential nominees to bypass potential filibusters).

But the level of bonhomie and general goodwill fostered by a conclave that went on for more than three hours already has Senate leaders promising to do such meetings again.

Up next, Reid said, could be a similar closed session with former Senate majority leaders George Mitchell (D) of Maine and Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi to discuss matters of the Senate.

“We are going to do more meetings, and we're going to do them on a periodic basis,” Reid said. “We're going to try to – I repeat, try – to talk to each other than past each other.”

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