Senate in long recess as leaders seek to rein in Democrats’ filibuster rebellion

January 24, 2011

By Paul Kane, The Washington Post

Before the week is done, one of the longest single “days” in the history of the Senate is expected to finally come to an end.

Amid a long-running dispute over decades-old filibuster rules, Senate leaders have used a parliamentary trick to leave the chamber in a state of suspended animation – in reality adjourned since Jan. 5 but officially considered in a long recess that’s part of the same individual legislative day.

This nearly three-week break has taken place in large part so leadership could hold private negotiations to consider how to deal with a group of Democrats agitating to shake up the foundation of the world’s most deliberative body, right down to challenging the filibuster.

To the dismay of a younger crop of Democrats and some outside liberal activists, there is no chance that rules surrounding the filibuster will be challenged, senior aides on both sides of the aisle say, because party leaders want to protect the right of the Senate’s minority party to sometimes force a supermajority of 60 votes to approve legislation.

Instead, rank-and-file lawmakers will receive pitches from Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who have been negotiating more limited changes, such as with “secret holds” that allow an anonymous senator to slow legislation. In addition, some modifications could be made to the way confirmations are handled for agency nominees who do not have direct roles in policymaking.

Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), both elected in 2008, have been pushing a never-before-tested option of changing the rules on a party-line vote and are considering demanding a vote on their proposal. That would require Vice President Biden, in his capacity as president of the Senate, to rule on whether the chamber can change its rules at the start of each new Congress.

“I’m waiting to hear. I’m told that the leaders are talking about possible changes and the way the floor works,” Biden said in a brief interview while visiting the Senate last week. “I may have to rule, so I’m going to keep that opinion to me.”

Neither Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would comment on the status of the talks, which have effectively ground the Senate to a halt.

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