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Reid, McConnell face off on Senate reforms

There is a certain irony to watching Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argue about filibuster

There is a certain irony to watching Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argue about filibuster reform. After all, up until fairly recently, Reid was so committed to institutionalism, he opposed even minor changes.

But as we were reminded yesterday, watching the two leaders face off on the Senate floor, Republicans haven't given Reid much of a choice.

What's striking about McConnell's defense of obstructionism is how weak his arguments are and how quickly they fall apart after minimal scrutiny. The Republican leader has completely destroyed the way in which the Senate was designed to function -- and the way it functioned for two centuries -- but nevertheless has the chutzpah to whine that Democrats are pursuing a "naked power grab" that would "poison party relations."

Ezra Klein had a good piece yesterday, documenting McConnell's "biggest whoppers" on filibusters, which suggest the Republican is either confused about the institution, its rules, and its history, or he's not yet prepared for an honest debate on the merits.

Indeed, perhaps the most important disconnect in the current debate is the way in which Republican apoplexy is wholly unrelated to the changes Democrats appear poised to pursue. To hear McConnell tell it, Reid and his caucus are going to make "fundamental" changes, intended to silence the Senate minority, and clear the way for a chamber in which "a bare majority can proceed to any bill it chose."

If Reid actually intended to make such sweeping reforms, we could at least debate the changes on the merits. But McConnell is decrying an agenda that does not exist in reality.

After all, what's really on the table? Greg Sargent reported late yesterday:

On the Senate floor today, Harry Reid offered the clearest confirmation yet that he will move forward with filibuster reform at the start of the new Congress. He confirmed he is proposing to "do away with filibusters on the motion to proceed," which was already known. He added that under proposed reforms, Senators who want to filibuster will have to "stand up and talk about it." That means Reid supports the "talking filibuster," the proposal to force filibustering out into the open -- on the theory that this will make it politically more difficult.

The only other proposed change I've heard about is an effort to reduce the time it would take to end a filibuster, which is also a fairly minor shift.

Taken together, the package of reforms is incredibly modest. The "talking filibuster" doesn't even require a change in the rules -- it can happen now -- and scrapping filibusters on motions to proceed effectively means the minority won't be able to prevent a debate before a bill reaches the floor.

To put it mildly, those seeking major changes will find these reforms entirely underwhelming. Indeed, the same problem that exists now -- an effective, majority-rule institution has been transformed into a dysfunctional, mandatory-supermajority institution -- will still plague the Senate even if Reid's ideas are adopted.

Given all of this, it's not even clear why McConnell is whining so incessantly. He and his caucus have brought obstructionism to heights unseen in American history, and Democratic reforms would still allow the GOP to keep blocking every bill they don't like. The "rights" of the Senate minority would be largely unaffected; we'd only see a slightly more efficient chamber, in which Republican filibusters would come about more quickly, and be more dramatic once attempted.