Eight Senators, four from each party, have now floated a Senate reform plan of their own. I blogged about this earlier today before we had seen the substance, but now that I have, here's an update of what I guess is going to be called the McCain-Levin proposal.
I think we need to break it down for two sets of situations. One is for majorities of 60 and up; the other is for any simple majority which doesn't reach 60 votes.
For the latter, the reform basically does nothing. Really: nothing. So as Congressional scholar Steven Smith tweeted, the "60-Vote Senate will remain alive and well." However: in my view, the talking filibuster proposed by Merkley and Udall would also leave the 60 vote Senate intact, so I don't consider losing it a big deal at all.
For the former, however, the bipartisan group is offering something that should make the Senate run smoother -- easier to go to conference, easier to get a bill to the floor, and on nominations, easier confirmation. Again, however, that's for 60+ vote majorities. In particular, for executive branch nominations other than cabinet posts, a handful of Senators could only delay things for a few hours, instead of the current possibility that they can make one non-controversial nominee last for a week.
Indeed, if those reforms work as they would seem to, that would help majority parties in general, because it would free up Senate floor time overall. Remember, Senate time is limited; it's possible that something with plenty of votes might not reach the floor because other items, higher priority items, eat up lots of time.
The proposal also guarantees the minority party at least two amendments on any bill which is brought to the floor under a new procedure that would avoid a filibuster on a motion to proceed.
* Ian Millhiser at Think Progress makes the point that this proposal works better for party leaders than for back benchers. That's especially true if those leaders would actually carry out suggested procedural (non-rules) changes, which would force Senators to park themselves on the Senate floor to make their own objections. I'm very skeptical that last part would happen, but I suppose it's true.
* Another part of the proposed reform is to move more executive branch nominations straight to the Senate calendar, rather than having them go through committee. I'm ambivalent about this one...I really like the idea of Senate committees working through nominations, but only if they can do it efficiently and with a minimum of paperwork. I fear that doing it this way reduces the influence of the Senate; the problem is that they can't seem to find a way to do it responsibly, so this might be better than nothing.
* Ezra Klein considers the possibility that the reform group could pass through regular order by winning 2/3 of the vote to be a problem. I disagree! But then again, I want reform that would retain individual Senators influence and a fair amount of influence for minority parties; I don't want to see a Senate run the way the House is run. I don't think it matters a lot, but for the those goals I think it's better to see a compromise made after the majority threatens to impose reform.
Again, the most important caveat: I've read through the proposal a couple of times, and I've read what Steve Smith and Sarah Binder have tweeted, but I'm very much open to the possibility that I'm misunderstanding the effects of one or more of the provisions (frankly, I've never quite mastered the whole amendments tree thing; the basic idea, sure, but well enough to understand how proposed changes would affect things? Maybe). Of course, it's also very possible that we outsiders could understand the likely effects of change better than the insiders who propose them. Rules are funny like that.
Overall: in my view, if looked at as a first offer open to further negotiations, this is a constructive proposal. I especially like that it deals separately with bills, executive branch nominations, and judicial nominations, something I've said is a requirement for any truly serious reform effort. Steven Smith thinks it's too favorable to the Republican minority, but I do think it would significantly reduce obstruction just for the sake of obstruction, and that helps the majority.
On the other hand, it clearly would do nothing for majorities which fall short of 60...technically, I suppose, it would allow debate on bills which now can't even get to the floor, but as I've said before I don't actually consider that a big deal. But again, since in my view Merkley-Udall doesn't do anything for majorities short of 60 either, it's a wash on that point.
All of which is to say that I'm really not thrilled with the direction all of this is going. What's breaking the Senate, and what needs to be revoked in order to end the pressure for reform, is the across-the-board 60 vote Senate. Simple majorities for executive branch nominations; some sort of expanded, more rational version of reconciliation to allow at least some top priorities of the majority to get through. Without that, I really don't think much will change, and that means the pressure for radical reforms won't go away.