WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of senators proposed Friday to clamp modest limits on filibusters, hoping to head off a bitter partisan fight over the issue when the new Congress convenes next week and approves its rules.
Led by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the group proposed limiting the use of filibusters, the procedural delays minority parties often use to grind the Senate's work to a halt. The proposal would also thwart majority parties from using a countertactic - blocking the minority from offering amendments.
Senate Democrats and Republicans, meeting separately Friday, were each given details of the proposal. Senators and aides said no final decisions were made about what rules the Senate would consider next week, a choice that largely rests in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Complaining that Republicans filibuster too frequently, Reid has threatened to impose even stricter filibuster limits with a simple majority vote - in effect ramming them through over GOP objections. That could well precipitate retaliatory procedural delays and other steps from Republicans and poison already frayed partisan relations, even as the two parties face months of complex disputes over taxes, spending, the economy and other issues.
Republicans say they filibuster because Reid often blocks them from offering amendments.
Filibusters require the votes of 60 of the 100 senators to halt. Democrats will have a 55-45 majority in the Senate next year.
The proposal by Levin and McCain would let the majority leader prevent filibusters when the Senate starts debating legislation. It would also reduce the number of filibusters when the Senate is ready to start trying to write compromise legislation with the House.
The proposal would also ensure that each party is allowed two amendments to each bill. And it would reduce the number of federal judgeships subject to filibusters, although not for top judges.
"All of us are totally frustrated with this gridlock," McCain told reporters.
Another group of mostly newer Democratic senators, led by Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, said the proposal by Levin and McCain is too weak. Besides limiting the number of filibusters, they want to require that senators who filibuster a bill actually do so by debating on the Senate floor, in hopes of making such delays less frequent and more difficult.
That type of filibuster - displayed in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" - seldom happens. Instead, senators opposing a bill merely inform Senate leaders that they will force the measure to win 60 votes to prevail.
"The heart of the paralysis in the United States Senate is the silent, secret filibuster," Merkley told reporters.