GOP may keep weaker Senate filibuster rule

AP News
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Posted: Dec 05, 2014 3:10 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Poised to take over the Senate next month, Republicans may well keep weaker filibuster rules that they angrily denounced Democrats for muscling through the chamber a year ago.

GOP senators remain divided on the issue, and it is uncertain what will happen when they discuss it Tuesday behind closed doors. But several Republicans said they think they will stick with the Democratic-imposed old threshold that a simple majority of votes can end filibusters against most nominations, instead of reviving the tougher 60-vote standard that lasted four decades before it was scuttled last November.

"My guess is even people who might have been inclined to go back are being persuaded more all the time that that's not practical," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the GOP Senate leadership.

Retaining the weaker standard would likely have scant impact on President Barack Obama's nominees in his final two years in office. Republicans controlling the Senate could simply choose to not hold votes on nominations they oppose and would not need filibusters, or procedural delays, to derail them.

In the longer term, keeping the relaxed rule would make it harder for Democrats to block nominations should Republicans win the White House and retain control of the Senate in the 2016 elections. Democrats have used the lower vote requirement to approve many of Obama's nominees this year, and Republicans say that even if they restore the 60-vote requirement, Democrats would just lower it again should they keep the presidency and recapture the Senate in 2016.

Some Republicans have little tolerance for embracing the eased rules, which every GOP senator voted against last year. At the time, Republicans condemned the Democratic move as a tragic power grab that would irreparably damage the Senate and warned their rivals that they would regret it.

"After the way we complained about what they did, it would be rank hypocrisy" to keep the weaker standard, said veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also backs the 60-vote requirement, saying, "When you have to reach across the aisle" to win needed votes, "you're probably going to get a better product than when you don't."

Others say the GOP should not abandon a rule that Democrats have used to their benefit.

"A lot of people think it would be a disadvantage to us" to revive the 60-vote threshold, said veteran Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "What if we had a president?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who led last year's battle against the change and will be majority leader in the new Congress, has not taken a definitive public stance on the question.

But at a forum this week sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, he said of the rules change, "It's impossible to unring a bell." Some lawmakers said that in private conversations, McConnell has stressed that requiring 60 votes for nominations has been relatively rare — which they said suggests McConnell could back retaining the lower threshold.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, advocates keeping the Democratic change, and 34-year veteran Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he is leaning that way, too.

More than two dozen conservative leaders are pressing Republicans to retain the simple majority requirement, including Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee and Gary Bauer, president of American Values. They wrote in a memo that reversing it would create "a self-imposed 60-vote threshold for nominations by Republican presidents."

Democrats voted to make it harder for Republicans to use filibusters after claiming that GOP senators were using the procedure with unprecedented frequency to hamstring Obama from filling judicial and administration vacancies. Republicans said they were simply doing what Democrats did to President George W. Bush's nominees.

The Democrats' simple majority requirement for halting filibusters applies to all agency and most judicial nominations. They retained the 60-vote standard for Supreme Court picks and legislation.

The 60-vote requirement for ending filibusters began in 1975. For six decades before that, it took a two-thirds Senate majority to halt the delays.