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HELENA – While the U.S. Senate is negotiating over solutions to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts and taxes, it’s also wrestling with another contentious issue: Whether to reform filibuster rules used by the minority to repeatedly block legislation.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is among those senators pushing far-reaching reforms that would restrict the filibuster, making it much harder for the minority to block legislation with procedural votes.

“A filibuster is supposed to be part of our system of checks and balances, but it’s abused to the point where we can’t even debate the important issues that Montanans expect us to address,” he said this week. “We weren’t sent to the Senate to debate about debating.”

Yet Montana’s senior senator, Democrat Max Baucus, sounded a more cautious note Wednesday – and declined to say whether he supports various filibuster reforms on the table.

“I’m talking with Montanans and carefully thinking through all potential consequences to make sure rural states won’t be left at a disadvantage, before I take any action on specific changes to the Senate rules,” he said.

The Huffington Post reported this week that filibuster reform advocates may have the needed majority to substantially change Senate filibuster rules when the body convenes for its 2013 session, in two weeks.

Yet it also reported on a group of senators trying to derail the reform with lesser changes.

Democrats control a 53-47 majority in the current Senate and will see it increase to 55-45 in the next Congress.

Under current Senate rules, a minority of 41 can block almost any action, as 60 votes are required to break this filibuster, or delaying tactic.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, the Republican minority in the Senate has often used the filibuster to block or delay various issues from even coming to the floor of the Senate.

Tester is supporting a rule change that would require filibustering senators to be forced to talk continuously on the floor of the Senate to block a bill and force the 60-vote rule, rather than just invoke it.

He also wants to prohibit filibusters on “motions to proceed” and eliminate secret “holds” that can be placed on a bill by a single senator.

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Baucus said he, too, wants to stop “gridlock” in Congress, but hasn’t revealed whether he supports revising filibuster rules.

Baucus’ office noted that major legislation has passed the Senate this year but has been held up in the Republican-controlled House, which does not have the filibuster rule.

The group of senators opposed to wider reform is working on a so-called compromise package that would not include the “talking filibuster.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the leading advocate of the talking filibuster and wider reforms, told the Huffington Post this week that reform is far from a sure thing, because of the difficulty of changing any long-standing rules in the tradition-bound Senate.

“Unless folks mobilize outside of this building and drive a message home, then reform of the filibuster may fizzle,” he told the Post.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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