Senate Democrats Call for Filibuster Reform

Hope to end obstructionism

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Returning Democratic senators unanimously support changing the rules for the filibuster after two years of gridlock. Though the senators, who all signed a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid calling for reform, don't have a specific plan in mind, a key change they'll put forward would mean the minority would have to work harder to sustain a filibuster and the majority would have to work less hard to overcome it.

National Journal's Dan Friedman explains the proposal thus: "Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it." Sen. Claire McCaskill told Friedman, "There need to be changes to the rules to allow filibusters to be conducted by people who actually want to block legislation instead of people being able to quietly say 'I object' and go home."

The reform push is gaining momentum among Democrats. But Reid has cautioned against tinkering with the filibuster, and outgoing Sen. Chris Dodd was the only Democrat who didn't sign the letter, and gave an impassioned defense of it in his farewell address to the chamber. Could the Senate really let go of one of it's beloved traditions?

  • It's Not Really a Tradition! The New Republic's Jonathan Chait insists. Dodd's sentiment is "shared by many old timers," but it's not necessarily well-founded.
In reality, the current arrangement is itself novel, deriving from a 1970s-era rule change. Designed to expedite the process, it turned the filibuster from a rare tool of passionate dissent into a routine supermajority requirement. There's not only no basis for it in the Constitution, there's no basis for it in Senate history. The proposed reform would actually make the filibuster more like the way it was throughout most of Senate history. The irony is that the Democratic old-timers think the way it was when they started, in the 1970s and 1980s, is the way it's always been."
  • Unthinkable Only a Year Ago, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein marvels. How large or small the change could be is still unclear, "but either way, it puts the minority on notice that continued routinization of procedural obstruction won't be met with mere sighs from the majority, but with rule changes that might eventually deprive the minority of those tools. The letter may just be a warning shot, but it could turn into much more if Democrats feel the warning wasn't heeded."
  • Don't Change the Nature of the Upper Chamber, Red State's Vladimir argues. "The bottom line is this: the Senate was never intended to be a democratic body, a reflection of one man, one vote. It is a deliberative body, and a consensus-building body. The filibuster has an important role to play in making that possible."
  • A 'Surprisingly Auspicious' Moment for Reform, liberal Mother Jones's Kevin Drum writes.
On the Democratic side, you have a lot of anger caused by the relentless obstruction and bad faith from the Republican caucus over the past two years. On the Republican side, you have the fact that they control the House, which means they don't have too much to fear from a filibuster-less Senate in the immediate future. The real benefit of reform would come sometime down the road when a single party once again controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, and there's no telling which party will be in charge the next time that happens.
  • Careful What You Wish For  "In 2012 there is a reasonable likelihood of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress,"  William A. Jacobson says at Legal Insurrection. " If Obama loses, and Republicans find themselves in the position Democrats have been in the past two years, things could get very interesting with relaxed filibuster rules.  Even if Obama wins, the ability of a Republican Senate to pass on legislation to Obama--requiring a veto--will be an important political tool. What goes around, comes around."
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