Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico says that he has whipped up 51 votes to change the filibuster rules at the beginning of the next Congress. That’s interesting because the numbers must be pretty tight. Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Carl Levin of Michigan, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are in negotiations with Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and (oddly, the retiring) Jon Kyl of Arizona. They are working on a rules change that can pass the 67-vote supermajority non-nuclear option. What they’re talking about doing is effectively another gentleman’s agreement, which is unacceptable.

Anyway, on the math, the Dems will have 55 senators next year and we know that four of them are actively working to avoid the nuclear option. That appears to mean that all of the other 51 Democrats are already on board with bringing back the talking filibuster. I’m a little skeptical about that.

In any case, while we’re in the subject of the filibuster, it’s helpful to keep it in mind as we go careening off the fiscal cliff. In his statement tonight, the president said that he was cautiously optimistic that a deal could still be reached but that, if no deal came into place, he would ask Harry Reid to bring a basic bill to the floor for an up or down vote.

…I expect a bill to go on the floor — and I’ve asked Senator Reid to do this — put a bill on the floor that makes sure that taxes on middle-class families don’t go up, that unemployment insurance is still available for two million people, and that lays the groundwork, then, for additional deficit reduction and economic growth steps that we can take in the New Year.

Normally, the Republicans would filibuster a bill like this. However, they have a number of considerations that are not normally in play. Number one is the clock. The act of filibustering is actually the act of not agreeing to a motion to proceed. That forces the Majority Leader to invoke cloture which takes time to ‘ripen.’ Specifically, the cloture petition is ignored for one full-day, so one filed on Monday cannot be voted on until Wednesday. If the Republicans don’t agree to an up or down vote on Sunday (the 30th of December) they will have effectively stalled the process through to the cliff. Do they want to do that?

And, if they are worried that the Democrats might have the momentum and unity to change the filibuster rules, using a high profile filibuster at the end of this Congress (in direct defiance of the president) would probably remove any doubt about the matter.

Of course, even if Harry Reid passes a bill in the Senate, that doesn’t mean that John Boehner will be willing or able to match him in the House. But that creates a further conundrum from Mitch McConnell. Does he filibuster and take all the blame, or does he dump it all in Boehner’s lap, split the Republicans, and lose the message war?

One thing is for sure. If there is no deal and there is a filibuster in the Senate, no one is going to cry for the Republicans when they lose some of their ability to obstruct in the next Congress.

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