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In filibuster deal, a glimpse of how the Senate could actually work

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The stage was set Monday, a day when Reid and Senator McConnell were at each other’s throats on the Senate floor. Democrats threatened to change the Senate rules with only a bare majority of senators, a move institutionalists feared would be the beginning of the end of minority rights in the upper chamber and Senator McConnell vowed would make Reid go down as the worst leader in Senate history.

Nearly all the members gathered in the Old Senate Chamber (last used when there were only 66 senators) to talk about the rules. Some three dozen members rose to speak.

"All intently listening to each other, you could hear a pin drop,” says Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon, a leading champion of changing the Senate’s rules. “It enabled people to understand the differing viewpoints.”

While that achievement may sound modest, it addressed an increasingly important issue: The day-to-day existence of United States senators does not allow for much across-the-aisle discussion nowadays.

When senators aren’t raising money, working on legislation, or flying to and from their sometimes far-flung home states, they spend most of their so-called "debate" time on the Senate floor “speaking to a void,” Senator Merkley says. “We’re speaking to a camera, we’re speaking to our constituents. But there’s no one there to listen to us among our colleagues.”

 While senators try to make up for that lack of contact with snippets of conversation on the Senate floor during votes or after the weekly lunches, where members dine with their own party colleagues, that amounts to “a fractured conversation and you have to pursue it with great diligence,” Merkley says.

Even more problematic, senators in both parties acknowledged, is that the two parties understand the basic facts of an issue in fundamentally different ways.

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