Senate Majority Rules? Senator Wants Showdown on Filibuster Reform

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Their majority dwindling, some Senate Democrats are planning a showdown on the first day of the new Congress over limiting Republicans' ability to hold up legislation through filibusters.

"We don't want to give the minority the ability to block the majority from governing," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a leading proponent of filibuster reform, told ABC News.

According to Udall, momentum is building behind his effort to amend Senate Rule XXII, which allows 3/5ths of the Senate -- or 60 members -- to invoke "cloture" and end debate. Failure to clear that 60-vote hurdle leaves a bill on the table, effectively killing it, and is commonly referred to as a modern "filibuster."

Udall proposes that senators who wish to hold up a piece of legislation be required to engage in a "talking filibuster," in which they would continuously speak on the floor, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-style, rather than simply using a failed cloture vote to kill a bill.

Udall also wants to eliminate so-called "anonymous holds" that allow any senator to issue a silent objection, freezing a bill or nomination.

In the 111th Congress, which ran from 2009 to 2010, Democrats successfully achieved cloture 63 times, breaking through more Republican-led attempts to filibuster than ever before. But 28 times, Democrats were unsuccessful, leading to the defeat of measures that had majority support -- like the DREAM Act, which would extend a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who entered the country as children.

"There's unprecedented abuse that's gone on the last two years," Udall said. "These filibusters have delayed things. They have obstructed the ability of the Senate to do its job."

Republicans note Udall, a freshman elected in 2008, has never served in the minority in the Senate. They question whether enough of Udall's colleagues -- there will be 53 senators in the Democratic caucus next year -- will back his proposal knowing it's possible the GOP, with 47 members, soon could control both houses of Congress.

"All [Democrats] need to do is watch [incoming House Speaker] John Boehner over the next two years, and say, 'Do I want that in the Senate?'" Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told ABC News.

Under Boehner's leadership, House Republicans pledge to repeal health care reform and permanently extend tax cuts, which they can easily accomplish with a simple majority vote.

Filibuster Reform: Just 51 Votes Required?

A change in the Senate rules normally would require a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, but citing precedent set over the past four decades, Udall hopes to ask for a ruling on the very first day of the 112th Congress to change the rules with just 51 votes.

Vice President Joe Biden, who served as a senator for 36 years, may be in a position to decide the matter with a parliamentary ruling in his role as president of the Senate.

"We're going to be insisting that we proceed under the Constitution, not under the Senate rules," Udall said. "The Constitution is supreme to the Senate rules."

Indeed, Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution declares that "each House may determine the rules of its proceedings."

But one of the nation's foremost experts on Senate procedure said a showdown on Jan. 5 is not in the Democrats' best interest.

"Neither side knows after 2012 whether they're going to be in the majority or the minority," said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University. "How much of a stick do the Democrats want to stick in the Republicans' eyes?"

Republicans point to the advice of outgoing Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who said in his farewell speech after five terms that he understood the "temptation" to change the filibuster rules.

"But whether such a temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process or by pure political expedience, I believe such changes would be unwise," Dodd said in late November.

Baker agreed, suggesting the 60-vote threshold creates a demand for legislation more palatable to the American people.

"On really, really important things, you really do want a consensus," he said.