Obama Quotes on Senate Rules in 2005 Given New Scrutiny

By Matt Loffman

Feb 24, 2010 12:43pm

At the National Press Club on April 26, 2005, then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was asked about a move being discussed by Senate Republicans, then in control, to change the Senate rules so as to require a mere majority vote rather than the 60 votes necessary to end a potential filibuster.

“You know, the Founders designed this system, as frustrating it is, to make sure that there's a broad consensus before the country moves forward,” then-Sen. Obama told the audience.

His remarks have garnered some attention in recent days given the current likelihood that Senate Democrats will next week use “reconciliation” rules, which require only a 51-vote majority, to pass health care reform legislation, bypassing the current Senate rules of requiring 60 votes to cut off a potential filibuster and proceed to a final vote.

The White House has been in recent days setting the table for use of reconciliation rules for health care reform. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs noted that reconciliation rules were used for both of President George W. Bush’s major tax cut provisions in 2001 and 2003.

And, it should be noted, reconciliation rules have been used for various health care measures, including the creation of COBRA, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare benefits for hospice care, and so on, as National Public Radio correspondent Julie Rovner detailed this morning.

In 2005, then-Sen. Obama was not talking about the use of reconciliation rules; but rather about a larger rule change, what came to be known by opponents as the “nuclear option,” and by supporters as the “constitutional option.” (Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., originally coined the "nuclear option" terminology but then stopped using it.)

At that time Senate Democrats had been blocking some of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees through use of the threat of a filibuster; of 57 nominees for the U.S. Court of Appeals, 42 were confirmed, five never received hearings, and 10 were blocked by threat of filibuster. Democrats said this was nothing compared to 60 or so nominees of President Bill Clinton for whom Republicans refused to even hold hearings.

Republicans responded by threatening to raise a point of order to – for all intents and purposes — declare the filibuster unconstitutional for judicial nominees, which they could have done with a majority vote. Senate Democrats, in turn, threatened to all but shut down the Senate. The showdown was avoided by a compromise created by the so-called “Gang of 14” Senators.

“I would like to think that this is something that we could sort out,” then-Sen. Obama said. “And I think that the way to sort it out would be for this administration to do what every administration previous to this one has done; which is to say, ‘Here are a set of nominees. Let's run them by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, figure out which of these judges generate the most heat, are considered most out of the extreme, and then let's work out what the list is of judges who in fact can gain some bipartisan support.’ I mean, that's what every president has done up until this point.”

He continued: “And what we have now is a president who has decided, you know, ‘I've gotten 95 percent of my appointees, but there are these 10 that I want just because I want them.’ Hasn't gotten his way. And that is now prompting, you know, a change in the Senate rules that really I think would change the character of the Senate forever.”

Mr. Obama recalled being in the minority in the Illinois state senate when the Republican leader adopted tough rules.

“I remember what it was like the first several years that I was in the minority,” he said. “You couldn't attach an amendment. You could not get a thing done. If you were in the minority, you might as well not have even showed up. And then there was redistricting, and a few years later, the Democrats are in charge, and now the Republicans cannot get a thing done. And the Democrats don't have to pay them any attention whatsoever.

“And what I worry about would be you essentially have still two chambers — the House and the Senate — but you have simply majoritarian absolute power on either side, and that's just not what the founders intended,” Obama said.

- jpt

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