Senate OKs modest restrictions on filibusters

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 9:12 p.m. MST

John Kerry

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The tradition-laden Senate voted Thursday to modestly curb filibusters, using a bipartisan consensus rare in today's hyper-partisan climate to make it a bit harder but not impossible for outnumbered senators to sink bills and nominations.

The rule changes would reduce yet not eliminate the number of times opponents — usually minority Republicans these days — can use filibusters, procedural tactics which can derail legislation and which can be stopped only by the votes of 60 of the 100 senators.

In return, the majority — Democrats today — would have to allow two minority amendments on bills, a response to Republican complaints that Democrats often prevent them from offering any amendments at all. The new procedures also would limit the time spent debating some bills and nominations, allowing some to be completed in hours that could otherwise take a day or more.

The changes were broken into two pieces and approved by votes of 78-16 and 86-9. In both roll calls, Republican opponents were joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who usually sides with Democrats. Many of the GOP "no" votes came from tea party-backed senators like Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

The two votes and a brief debate took less than an hour, impressively quick for the Senate. They came after a more typical day that featured a sprinkling of senators' speeches and long periods when the Senate chamber idled with no one talking, while private negotiations off the floor nailed down final details.

The pact leaves the Senate's minority party with far more power than it has in the House, where rules let a united majority party easily muscle through its priorities. It also falls short of changes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had been threatening to ram through using the 55 votes Democrats have, a technique nicknamed the "nuclear option" because it is considered likely to produce harsh GOP retaliation that could grind work to a virtual halt.

The two votes and a brief debate took less than an hour, impressively quick for the Senate. They came after a more typical day that featured a sprinkling of senators' speeches and long periods when the Senate chamber idled with no one talking, while private negotiations off the floor nailed down final details.

President Barack Obama said the Senate action would help his agenda in Congress.

"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," Obama said in a written statement.

The pact leaves the Senate's minority party with far more power than it has in the House, where rules let a united majority party easily muscle through its priorities. It also falls short of changes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had been threatening to ram through using the 55 votes Democrats have, a technique nicknamed the "nuclear option" because it is considered likely to produce harsh GOP retaliation that could grind work to a virtual halt.

Reid said the changes would increase Senate efficiency while protecting lawmakers in the minority party, warning that he would consider future changes if Thursday's package didn't do enough.

SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE TESTIFIES: Sen. John Kerry, President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state, collected pledges of support Thursday and testified at his confirmation hearing that U.S. foreign policy should be defined by a helping hand as well as military strength.

The Massachusetts Democrat discussed Iran, Syria, climate change and a variety of issues with members of the Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing that recalled an unusual American life — son of a diplomat, Navy lieutenant who volunteered for Vietnam, anti-war protester, five-term senator, unsuccessful nominee for president, and Obama's unofficial envoy.

The nearly four-hour hearing also provided an odd juxtaposition as Kerry, a member of the panel for 28 years and its chairman for the last four, sat alone in the witness chair. At one point, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the incoming chairman who presided, mistakenly referred to Kerry as "Mr. Secretary."

SENATE TO VOTE ON SANDY BILL: The Senate is set to vote Monday on a $50.5 billion emergency relief bill to help victims of Superstorm Sandy.

Northeast lawmakers from both parties hope to win Senate approval of the measure and send it to President Barack Obama, who has said he would sign it. The House passed it last week.

The lawmakers say the money is urgently needed to recover from one of the region's worst storms, especially in the hardest hit states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Fiscal conservatives say the bill would add to the nation's debt unless offsetting spending cuts are made elsewhere to pay for the Sandy aid.

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