Filibuster Reform Fight Unfolds In Senate

Jan 5, 2011 5:33pm

ABC News’ Matthew Jaffe reports:   With the Democrats’ majority in the Senate today dwindling from 58 seats to 53 as the 112th Congress kicked off, they wasted no time in embarking on an effort to change Senate rules to make it harder for the minority party to filibuster legislation. “The United States Senate must solve problems, not create them,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a speech on the chamber’s floor. “No one can deny that the filibuster has been used for purely political reasons, reasons far beyond those for which this protection was invented and intended.” Reid, noting that the last session of Congress saw nearly as many filibusters as the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and half the 1970s combined, said the filibuster has been “used and abused gratuitously.” “Many of these recent filibusters were terribly unproductive,” said Reid, citing that many bills that broke through the Senate’s 60-vote threshold ultimately passed overwhelmingly and sometimes unanimously. Leading the push for filibuster reform is Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA. Harkin wants to amend Senate rules to allow a decreasing majority of senators to end debate on a bill. As it stands now, Rule XXII requires that 3/5 of the chamber – in other words, 60 members – must back a bill in order to end debate and move to a final vote, so a group of minority senators can effectively stop a bill by voting against it and preventing it from passing the 60-vote hurdle, a move known as a modern-day filibuster.
Under Harkin’s proposal, if a bill does not get 60 votes to end debate, another vote could take place two days later, requiring 57 votes. If the bill still failed to get past that vote, then a third vote needing 54 votes could take place after two more days. Finally, a fourth vote, with only 51 votes needed, would take place after another two-day wait. “I think the voters of this country were turned off by the constant bickering, the arguing back and forth that goes on in this Senate chamber, the gridlock that ensued here, the pointing of fingers of blame,” Harkin said. “Sometimes in the fog of debate, like the fog of war, it is hard to determine who is responsible for slowing something down. It's like shifting sand. People hide behind the filibuster. I think it is time to let the voters know that we heard their message in the last election.” “275 filibusters in four years is not just a cold statistic. It represents the minority blocking measures sometimes – not all the time – but sometimes that enjoy broad support among the American people. In the last Congress, the filibuster was used to kill many bills that enjoyed majority and often bipartisan support,” Harkin said. For instance the DREAM Act – a measure that would grant citizenship to young illegal immigrants who join the military or go to college – received majority support in the Senate but fell victim to the 60-vote threshold before ever coming to a final vote. A separate filibuster reform proposal, also supported by Harkin in partnership along with Sens. Tom Udall, D-NM, and Jeff Merkley, D-OR, would make senators who want to block a bill have to hold a “talking filibuster,” where they speak continuously on the chamber’s floor a la “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It would also remove the 60-vote threshold required for a bill to even start being debated on the Senate floor at all. And it would scrap secret holds, which empower senators to silently object to a bill or nomination to prevent it from moving forward. “This should not be a partisan issue,” Udall said. “We know both sides have abused the rules. Now is the time to work together to fix them.” But GOP leaders show no signs of going along with the Democrats’ efforts. The Senate’s top Republican Mitch McConnell today denounced the filibuster reform plans as “a bad idea.” “For two years, Americans have been telling us that they’re tired of being shut out of the legislative process. They want to be heard,” McConnell said. “And the response they’re now getting from some on the other side, instead, is a proposal to change the Senate rules so they can continue do exactly what they want with even fewer members than before. Instead of changing their behavior in response to the last election, they want to change the rules.” McConnell said the filibuster has “helped ensure that most major agreements enjoy the broad support of the public and the stability that comes with it.” “Regrettably, the current majority has too often lost sight of this important truth,” he said. The filibuster reform push might not even have the support of all Senate Democrats. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-NE, who frequently sides with Republicans, told the Omaha World-Herald that “the last thing we need to do is start changing rules, with 51 votes and simple majority, and make the Senate a smaller version of the House.” So what happens next? The Senate’s fight over filibuster reform is not set to take center stage until later this month, since lawmakers are set to recess later this week until January 24. At that time, Reid may have figured out a way to work out a deal on reform that is palatable to Republicans – or he may have decided to try to pass the reforms with a simple majority vote using the so-called “Constitutional option.”

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