A top GOP senator wants to make it easier to debate legislation — an historic step that would smooth the path for Republican-authored initiatives.
Floating the controversial idea is Sen. Roy Blunt, the Rules Committee chairman who just engineered a successful drive to change Senate rules and tradition to make it easier to approve President Donald Trump’s nominees more quickly.
It now takes 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster and begin debating a bill. The Senate has 53 Republicans. Blunt would lower the number needed to proceed to 51.
That idea is chilling to many Democrats, who since Trump became president have seen the GOP-controlled Senate require 51, instead of 60 votes, to limit debate on Supreme Court nominees. And last week, it chopped the debate time allowed for prospective federal district judges from 30 hours to two, a change championed by Blunt.
Those moves allowed Trump Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to win confirmation — which may not have happened if 60 votes had been needed to limit debate. Gorsuch was confirmed with 54 yes votes and Kavanaugh by a 50-48 margin.
Now Blunt, a Missouri Republican, is trying to apply the 51-vote rule to legislation.
It’s not clear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would support such a change. And Blunt, who, like McConnell, is opposed to doing away with the 60-vote threshold altogether, has no immediate plan for moving the idea forward.
But most Democrats are wary nevertheless.
They see Blunt’s initiative as another step in an ongoing Republican strategy to speed their policy agenda into law.
“I’m afraid Nuclear Mitch has more tricks up his sleeve,” said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat.
Blunt said his proposal would not eliminate the filibuster, one of the Senate’s most cherished traditions designed to protect the rights of the minority. Sixty votes would still be needed to limit debate and push legislation to a final vote.
Blunt’s goal would be to streamline the legislative process by making it easier to start debating.
“I still think we need 60 to proceed to legislation,” Blunt said in an interview. “There are ways to shorten that process but still maintain that 60 vote (threshold). It uniquely makes the Senate historically the deliberative body it is and the body that almost always requires some bipartisan cooperation.”
But each step in changing the rules recently has led to another.
Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research group, saw any such change as a major step.
“It’s a big deal, because the Senate is increasingly moving to majority votes,” West said. “It changes the whole character of the Senate.”
West said that the change proposed by Blunt would be good for reducing legislative gridlock, but it could empower majorities to ram bills through.
And it could come back to haunt Republicans in two years or more if Democrats regain control of the Senate.
“But that’s why Blunt may want to do this,” West said. “They (Republicans) know that there’s a decent shot that this is it for them for awhile.”
It’s unclear just what legislation would benefit from an easier path through the Senate. Spending bills usually spark the most bitter debates, and those should be coming up during the summer and fall.
The idea to allow debate on a bill without needing 60 votes emerged in 2015 after McConnell, frustrated by what he saw as Democratic obstruction, appointed a GOP task force to examine the Senate’s rules. Blunt led that group, along with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Republicans were angry that then-Democratic Leader Harry Reid had used the so-called nuclear option to lower the number of votes needed for most executive and federal judicial nominees — though not for the Supreme Court — from 60 to 51. Republicans, however, had yet to employ nuclear tactics themselves, and the task force’s proposal to nix the 60-vote threshold to start debating bills never got traction.
Since then, however, McConnell has resorted to the nuclear option twice to speed up the confirmation process for judges.
Trump himself repeatedly has said he wants McConnell to do away entirely with the 60-vote requirement for legislation. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said Wednesday he wants to change filibuster rules to make it easier for his Medicare for All plan to pass. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat also running for president, recently agreed the 60 vote threshold should go.
A growing number of Republicans in the Senate feel something should be done, and Blunt’s idea is seen by some as a compromise.
“It’s in keeping what we’re trying to do which is to prevent obstructionism, which is clearly the case,” said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee. “We waste an awful lot of time in not legislating.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said he would never support doing away with the 60-vote threshold entirely. But he’s open to Blunt’s idea of making it harder for the minority party to block debate.
”Some of these rules are just archaic and they’re doing nothing to really benefit the public and what we need to do,” Johnson said. “There are enormous challenges facing this nation and we’re just not capable because we don’t have the floor time.”
Not all Republicans are in favor of tampering with the legislative filibuster rules, even in the limited way Blunt has suggested.
“Right now I’d say leave things the way they are,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who serves as the Senate’s president pro tem.
But GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, counselor to the Republican Senate caucus, said it’s worth talking about ditching the 60-vote threshold to start debate on legislation.
“We always have the 60 vote threshold (before a final vote) if things didn’t work out so well,” Cornyn said.
Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, served on the rules task force with Blunt in 2015. He said he supports changing Senate rules to allow bills to go to the floor for debate with just 51 votes instead of 60. But he is committed to keeping the 60-vote requirement to limit debate and move to a final vote.
“To me, the majority party should be able to debate whatever they want to debate,” he said, “but the final vote only happens when both parties agree.”
Lankford would only make the rules change if at least 60 members of the 100-person Senate were on board.
“That needs to go through a formal process. That’s a body-wide issue that needs to be resolved,” Lankford said.