Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What Happened to Filibuster Reform?

Strom Thurmond filibusters 1957 civil rights act











At the end of December, before the start of the new Congress, all of the returning Democrats expressed a strong desire for filibuster reform, signing a letter urging Majority Leader Harry Reid to change the rules.  As I wrote then (Better Late Than Never), the fact that the Senate Democrats could agree on this unanimously reflected how truly outrageous the Republicans have been in abusing the current rules to hold the government hostage to their right wing agenda.

Senator Tom Harkin recently made the following case for reform:
"What has the filibuster become? A means whereby a minority in the Senate dictates what we can and cannot do. We have stood democracy on its head. The minority has the power, and not the responsibility, to [stop] legislation. The majority has the responsibility, and not the power, to enact legislation.  The minority determines what the Senate does. It determines what the Congress can do . . . Therefore, a small minority in the Senate now decides what happens in this country."
The Udall-Merkely-Harkin proposal seemed to be getting the most attention in anticipation of the new Senate term.  Greg Sargent explains that this plan, "which includes doing away with the filibuster of the motion to proceed, eliminating secret holds, and forcing Senators to actually filibuster, will make it far harder for a minority to use the tool as part of a broader strategy to frustrate democracy."   However, this was not the only proposal on the table, and while the Democrats seemed unanimous in wanting to change the filibuster rules they could not, of course, agree on which plan to adopt.

Firedoglake summarizes some of the other proposals:  "Al Franken’s amendment would change the threshold for filibusters from needing 60 to break one to needing 41 to sustain one. Mark Udall has a separate proposal with elements of both Franken’s rule change and Udall-Merkley-Harkin, albeit slightly different. He includes to that ending the option for reading on the floor amendments which are printed in a timely fashion, and end the unanimous consent needed for committees to meet. Claire McCaskill and Ron Wyden seem to be focused entirely on ending secret holds, which is in the Udall-Merkley-Harkin document."

The Democrats couldn't reach agreement on their own proposals and, even worse, decided it would be better to get some Republicans on board as well.  Sam Stein of Huffington Post reports that although procedures were in place to permit rule changes with a majority of 51 votes, some Democrats were wary of this option and preferred to settle for a less ambitious, watered-down reform package that would garner 67 votes.  The deal that appears to be falling into place would do away with "secret holds," which have allowed any Senator to anonymously stop a vote on Presidential nominees, and reduce the number of nominations that require Senate confirmation.  There appears, however, to be no consensus on modifying the filibuster rules to ensure that a party would actually have to filibuster rather than merely threaten to do so.

As Rachel Maddow said, filibuster reform is "the single most important thing we can do on a single day to change Washington. It would make a huge difference in the rest of Barack Obama's first term, and might make a difference whether he has a second term."   Oh well.

[Related posts:  Better Late Than Never, Vermont's Finest]

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