Will Democrats Alter Filibuster Rules? The Senate is back in session Tuesday after a break, but it's still the same legislative day that began Jan. 5. Democrats have ground time to a halt so they can try to change the rules regarding filibusters.

Democrats Stopped The Clock. Will They Alter Rules?

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

INSKEEP: the filibuster. NPR's David Welna explains.

DAVID WELNA: The man leading the charge to change the Senate's rules on the filibuster is Tom Udall. He's a New Mexico Democrat, and he's been fuming since taking office two years ago about the record number of times Republicans have blocked bills and nominations by threatening to talk them to death, using that notorious right of the Senate minority known as the filibuster.

INSKEEP: The American people are fed up with it. They are fed up with us, and I don't blame them. We need to bring the workings of the Senate out of the shadows and restore its accountability. That begins with addressing our own dysfunction - specifically, the source of that dysfunction: the Senate rules.

WELNA: That was Udall on the Senate floor the first day that chamber met this year. Majority Leader Harry Reid backed him up.

INSKEEP: We may not agree yet on how to fix the problem, but no one can credibly claim problems don't exist. No one who has watched this body operate since the current minority took office can say that it functions just fine.

INSKEEP: We don't think the Senate rules are broken.

WELNA: That's Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He and his fellow Republicans gained six Senate seats in November. It makes it that much harder for Democrats now to muster the 60 votes they need to stop a filibuster.

INSKEEP: And what we think is going on here is an opportunity - an effort to, in effect, to try to nullify the results of the election.

WELNA: Not so, says New Mexico Democrat Udall.

INSKEEP: My proposal is to make the Senate, of each Congress, accountable for all of our rules. This is what the Constitution provides for, and it's what our founders intended.

WELNA: And that's why Majority Leader Reid, earlier this month, froze the Senate in day one, and seemed to threaten he'd hold such a simple majority vote should a deal not be reached with Republicans.

INSKEEP: We hope that Republicans see the light of day and are willing to work with us. If not, we'll have to do something on our own.

WELNA: Senate Republicans do seem willing to agree to at least one of the rules changes Udall and other frustrated junior Senate Democrats are proposing: doing away with secret holds, those threats made anonymously to filibuster bills or nominations. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley says holds should still be permitted - so long as they're not secret.

INSKEEP: If a senator then has a legitimate reason to object to proceedings to a bill, or a nominee, then he or she ought to have the guts to do so publicly.

WELNA: Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley is pushing yet another rules change - that a filibuster come to an end the moment its proponents stop talking on the Senate floor.

INSKEEP: We're saying yes, you can keep speaking, but you've got to speak. You can't go on vacation. You cannot hide from the American people. You cannot object and hide.

WELNA: But Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander says the onus properly belongs on those promoting a bill or nomination.

INSKEEP: If you think we're holding something up improperly, confront that senator. Run over him. You can do it. You've got the power to do it if you have 60 votes.

WELNA: Republicans seem confident Democrats won't resort to passing a set of rules changes by a simple majority. Rutgers University Senate expert Ross Baker says Democrats likely would have a hard time mustering even those 51 votes.

INSKEEP: Because there is the possibility that the Democrats may become the minority party after the 2012 election. And I suspect there are some Democratic senators, being strategic thinkers, are kind of projecting ahead to 2012 and saying, well, now wait a minute - we might want to have the filibuster intact - the way it is now - if we find ourselves in the minority.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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