Thursday, January 24, 2013, may go down as one of the most historic days in the Senate. With Congress starting the year with an approval rating of 14% (since January, 2011 this rating has averaged 15.5%, ranging from 24% down to 10%) the Senate voted with strong bipartisan majorities on two votes to change its rules on use of the filibuster.
The changes instituted will mean more important and/or controversial bills will come to the floor for debate. As the issues of the deficit, immigration, gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change will all come before the 113th Congress, we should know within a few months if the changes made will cause at least a crack in the gridlock allowing these issues to be debated and perhaps solutions enacted.
Filibuster will no longer be used to prevent a bill from being brought to the full Senate for debate. Instead, fourteen Senators — seven from each party plus the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader — are required to sign the motion for cloture on the motion to proceed. If the signatures are received, the motion will be brought to the Senate floor the next business day. This is changed from three days. Any Senator may still initiate a filibuster during full debate.
Once a bill is before the Senate for debate each party will be allowed to propose two amendments. This is another significant change. In prior sessions, the majority leader could — and has — disallowed amendments from the floor. This will allow the minority party to make changes to the bill during debate. In the past, when this has happened, a bill normally has gotten bipartisan support for final passage or rejection.
While a Senator will not have to hold the floor to filibuster, they must be physically present to file. No longer will a Senator who is out of town be able to stop debate by simply notifying the majority leader of the intent. This will undoubtedly cause some Senators to rethink their travel and work schedules when crucial bills are on the calendar.
In a move that has the potential to improve relations between the president and the Senate, judicial nominees will now be voted on after two hours of debate rather than the 30 hours allowed prior to this change.
The final change concerns requests from the House of Representative for a conference committee or to accept House amendments. When these are presented, a rules change will limit debate to two hours. This will help minimize or eliminate the frustration in the lower chamber that has been experienced when bills passed by the House have stalled in the Senate.
By votes of 78-16 and 86-9, the Senate has perhaps signaled change is in the air. Given the serious matters that will be before Congress in the next two months, we will know in short order if this is the real deal or just more smoke. For the country's sake, let's hope it is the former.