The Senate has informally agreed to change its rules on filibusters, including a new provision that will streamline confirmation votes on federal district court judges.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) came to an agreement Thursday on reforms to the filibuster, which has been blamed for the gridlock in the Senate and long delays for judicial nominees.
While the agreement does not include many of the key changes that some filibuster reformers sought, it does reduce the amount of floor time needed to overcome a filibuster and force a vote on a judicial confirmation, called cloture.
Previously, a filibuster on each judicial nomination threatened to use up a week of the Senate's floor time, making Senate leadership consider cloture too time-consuming to be worth it. Under the new rules, the cloture process would be reduced from a few days to a few hours, except for federal circuit court and U.S. Supreme Court nominees.
"This allows you to set up a number of nominations and get up or down votes on them," reform supporter Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told reporters on January 3, the first day of the new congressional session.
The agreements have not yet been finalized by the Senate.
The agreement will not include a provision to require a "talking filibuster," which Udall and other reformers said would eliminate secret holds on judicial nominees. However, Senators would have to come to the floor to filibuster instead of simply making a call.
And reducing the cloture time will make judicial nominees less of a target for Senators looking to gum up the Senate operations or get their way on an unrelated piece of legislation.
The agreement also means Reid will not have to change the rules through a controversial tactic dubbed the "nuclear option." In theory, the Constitution allows the Senate to amend its own rules on a simple majority vote (51), instead of the two-thirds vote normally required to change the Senate's rules.
The costs of the Senate gridlock are evident: Judicial nominees waited an average 139 days just to secure a confirmation vote from the full Senate during President Obama's first term, compared with 54 days during George W. Bush's administration and 30 days during Bill Clinton's, according to the Brookings Institution.
And the best-qualified attorneys for the bench, especially those at top law firms, have become increasingly wary of confirmation delays that can harm their business and personal finances, according to some senators.