At noon today, every senator and senator-elect will be on the chamber floor, where they'll be sworn in, marking the beginning of the 113th Congress. Soon after, members will, at least in theory, get to work.
But before they tackle any legislative duties, senators will have to establish some procedural guidelines for how the chamber will function, or at least try to, over the next two years -- starting, of course, with consideration of proposed changes to the Senate's abused, increasingly ridiculous filibuster rules.
There is more than one plan on the table. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), for example, have put forward the most ambitious reforms, which include the much-discussed "talking filibuster" provision. Late last week, another option emerged when Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) unveiled a severely watered-down plan, which would make very few substantive changes.
Yesterday, Merkley told Greg Sargent that the McCain/Levin plan, which would not address what the Democrat calls the "secret silent filibuster," is simply too weak to support.
"If Levin-McCain comes to the floor in its current form, I'll vote against it," Merkley told me today. "I'll certainly encourage others to oppose it." Indeed, Merkley adds that the current package of reforms would further enable minority obstructionism -- and constitutes a gift to Republicans.
That Merkley is sounding the alarm in this fashion suggests the prospects for real filibuster reform may be very bleak.... The time for real filibuster reform is fast running out. Indeed, from the point of view of reformers, we may be about to take a step backwards. And given how fleeting the political will is for this kind of reform to begin with, that bodes terribly for the prospects of real long term change.
So, what's going to happen? It'll be up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to set the course of action, and right now, even he doesn't seem to know what will happen next.
In fact, it appears Reid may want to explore a reform avenue of his own, and will delay a formal decision until he has a chance to consider a different plan.
With a new Congress being sworn in Thursday, Reid had threatened to invoke what critics call the "nuclear option": Changing filibuster rules by 51 votes on the first day of a new session, circumventing the usual requirement in which at least 67 senators are needed to change Senate rules.
Instead, he'll employ a circuitous procedure to technically keep the Senate in its first legislative day by sending the chamber into recess -- rather than adjourning. That move would keep the Senate in session, preserving his option of pushing forward with the so-called nuclear option at a later date.
That will buy Reid time for further negotiations with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to see if they can reach a bipartisan agreement, aides said Wednesday. It could delay the fight until the week of Jan. 22.
We don't yet know what Reid intends to do -- though he reportedly disapproves of both reform plans -- but so long as the process continues, the prospect for some kind of changes to the dysfunctional chamber remains alive.