Filibuster “Reform” Won’t Mean Much For Guns Or Immigration Reform

Changes to arcane Senate rules will speed work on some bills, but the filibuster lives to blockade another day.

Columbia, File / AP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama may hope the so-called changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules will result in “meaningful action” on gun control and immigration, but don’t bet on it.

In a statement released by the White House late Thursday night, Obama praised the minor tweaks to the chamber’s rules, arguing that, “At a time when we face critical decisions on a whole range of issues — from preventing further gun violence, to reforming our broken immigration system, to getting our fiscal house in order and creating good paying jobs — we cannot afford unnecessary obstruction. And I am hopeful that today’s bipartisan agreement will pave the way for the Senate to take meaningful action in the days and weeks ahead.”

But the changes agreed to by the Senate Thursday on a broad bipartisan basis are largely cosmetic and won’t go very far towards clearing hurdles to highly controversial measures like immigration reform.

Liberals had been pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to undertake a wholesale restructuring of the chamber’s rules, offering up a host of options ranging from requiring members to physically filibuster bills, like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to creating a gradual reduction in vote levels that would eventually let a simple majority of the Senate end a blockade.

Although Reid played lip service to those demands — and was clearly frustrated by the record number of filibusters Republicans used in the 112th Congress — there was never really any chance significant reforms would happen.

Reid is, after all, an institutionalist, and he is loathe to tinker with the Senate’s inner workings. But perhaps more importantly, Reid always plays the long game, and understood that major changes would end up hurting Democratic priorities when they find themselves in the minority again.

As a result, he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came to compromise of sorts, eliminating certain types of filibusters that can be used at the front end of a bill’s consideration on the floor, while limiting Reid’s ability to bar Republicans from offering amendments to bills.

That should help clear some legislation in a more timely manner — filibusters on the motion to proceed, the basic start of consideration of a bill, burn up days of legislative business every year. And with Republicans able to offer at least two amendments to a bill, McConnell and Reid could be less likely to engage in procedural warfare on run-of-the-mill appropriations and authorization measures.

But Republicans can still filibuster final passage of a bill, meaning big-ticket items like immigration reform, gun control or climate change — in the unlikely event it came to the floor — won’t necessarily have an easier time actually getting passed.

However, Reid hinted Thursday night that if the changes don’t thaw the partisan ice in the Senate, he may look to force further reforms to the rules down the road.

“It is my hope that these reforms will help restore a spirit of comity and bipartisan cooperation,” Reid said in a statement. “If these reforms do not do enough to end the gridlock here in Washington, we will consider doing more in the future.”

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