Only Three Days Until U.S. Senate Decides on Filibuster Reform

On January 3, 2013, the U.S. Senate of the 113th Congress convenes for the first time. One of the first items of business will be adoption or amendment of its rules.

Prior posts have examined the so-called “speaking filibuster” reform proposal led by Senator Jeff Merkley of Washington State. Although I think it does not go far enough to prevent the minority Republican Senators from stopping action on the nation’s urgent business, the only way it can be adopted on January 3rd is by a simple majority vote of at least 51 Senators under the so-called “constitutional option” or “nuclear option.”[1]

This prospect last Friday prompted an even weaker reform measure from four Republican Senators (John McCain, Lamar Alexander, Jon Kyl and John Barrasso) and four Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Chuck Schumer, Mark Pryor and Ben Cardin).

This so-called bipartisan plan’s main changes would allow the majority leader to prevent filibusters when the Senate starts debating legislation; reduce the number of filibusters when the Senate is ready to start trying to write compromise legislation with the House; ensure that each party would be allowed two amendments to each bill; and reduce the number of federal judgeships subject to filibusters, although not for top judges. This group’s proposal is not a rules change, but rather a “standing order” that would expire next term. In addition, although the proposal does not require a speaking filibuster, a document explaining the proposal said the leaders of the two parties would require it.

In order for this weaker “bipartisan” proposal to block the one from Senator Merkley, the former’s supporters have to obtain the backing of only one more Democratic Senator (in addition to the four that are its original sponsors) that would deprive Senator Merkley’s proposal of the 51 votes its needs to pass under the “constitutional option.”

One of their most promising targets for this additional vote for the weaker proposal has been Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been reluctant to change the rules on a party-line vote because of concerns about what will happen if and when Democrats are once again in the minority. On yesterday’s “Fox News Sunday,” however, Feinstein said she is hopeful the bipartisan plan will work out, but she would not rule out the Democrats’ going it alone.

According to the Huffington Post, there are two other Democratic Senators that are possible endorsers of the more limited reform. They are Senators Baucus of Montana and Donnelly of Indiana.

Even if the “bipartisan” proposal could deprive a simple majority for the Merkley proposal, it appears doubtful that the “bipartisan” version could obtain the 67 votes it would need for adoption under the current rules requiring a two-thirds (or 67) votes to amend the rules. However, if the Merkley proposal is defeated, its backers could reluctantly support the “bipartisan” version as “something is better than nothing.”

Keep in mind that a  broad coalition of nearly 50 progressive and labor organizations that have been actively lobbying for filibuster reform have rejected the bipartisan proposal, calling it a “recipe for continued Senate gridlock.”

Watch carefully the news from the Senate on January 3rd to learn what happens.


[1] This account is based upon the following: Assoc. Press, Bipartisan Senators Propose Curbing Filibusters,  N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2012); Weissman, Lawmakers Suggest New Rules To Speed Up Senate Business, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2012); Breaking the Filibuster, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Johnson & Grim, John McCain, Filibuster Reform Opponents Offering Counterproposal, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Kim & Everett, Bipartisan compromise pitched on filibuster, Politico (Dec. 28, 2012); McAuliff & Grim, Weakened Filibuster Reform Plan Revealed in Congress By John McCain, Carl Levin, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Grim, Weak Filibuster Reform Offer Rejected By Progressive, Labor Coalition, Huffington Post (Dec. 29, 2012); Grim, Dianne Feinstein: Filibuster Reform Headed In Bipartisan Direction, But Nuclear Option Still On Table, Huffington Post (Dec. 30, 2012).

 

A Citizen’s Response to Washington Skirmishing Over Changing the U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

The U.S. Senate, in my opinion, is dysfunctional. One of the major sources of this failing is its filibuster rule that at least since 2009 has made it necessary to have the votes of at least 60 of the 100 Senators in order to do almost anything. I have railed against this rule and the way it has been used in many prior posts.

In anticipation of the new Congress’ convening in early January 2013, a group of Democratic Senators is developing support for modest changes to the filibuster rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is supportive of this effort. The exact nature of the proposed changes apparently has not been set, but would at least include banning the filibuster on motions to take up proposed legislation for debate on the Senate floor and motions to take Senate-approved legislation to conference with the House of Representatives’ negotiators plus requiring those invoking the filibuster rule in other instances to stand up and speak on the Senate floor.[1]

Under the standing Senate rules, any amendment to the rules requires a two-thirds (67) votes. In the next session of Congress in January this would mean that all 53 Democratic Senators plus the 2 Independent  Senators plus 12 Republican Senators would have to vote in favor of any amendment.  All Washington observers agree that such a vote could not be attained for the proposed change to the filibuster rule.

Therefore, the supporters of changing the filibuster rule argue that at the start of a new session of Congress the Senate may change or adopt new rules by a simple majority vote (51).

This possibility has caused some of the Republican Senators to go apoplectic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said adopting this proposed rule change by a simple majority vote would be like throwing “a bomb into the Senate, have it blow up, and have everybody mad as heck.” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the incoming Republican whip, said, this would “shut down the Senate” and was an abuse of power. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma added that it would “destroy” the Senate and cause a severe backlash. Similar comments have been made by Republican Senators John Barrasso of Wyoming, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Such remarks, in my opinion, are absurd.

There are even some Democratic Senators who have expressed opposition or skepticism about changing the rules by a simple majority vote. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he preferred “not to use a mechanism which I believe is dubious.” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said he did not like the simple majority-vote option.  Newly re-elected Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri stated that although she fully supported changing the rule, she was “not 100 percent in support” of the simple-majority-vote approach to doing do. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii merely said he was studying the proposal. In addition, Democratic Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly of Indiana said he was concerned about not protecting the things that make the Senate unique.

Much of this Democratic opposition or skepticism is the concern that someday they will be in the minority and wanting to block Republican proposals. However, this concern implicitly endorses eternal stalemate and the current Republican agenda of opposing most federal government action.

What then can U.S. citizens do to support changing the filibuster rule? I propose the following:

  1. Sign the electronic petition supporting the change.
  2. Write an email or letter to the Senators and Senators-Elect who are the initiators of the petition thanking them for doing so: Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Harkin, Amy Klobuchar, Jeanne Shaheen and Elizabeth Warren.
  3. Write to other Senators and Senators-Elect (Angus King, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy) who have publicly stated the need for changing the rule and urge them to join the petition campaign.
  4. Write to Majority Leader Harry Reid and urge him to press forward with changing the rule by a simple majority vote.
  5. Write to Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill and Daniel Inouye) and Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly who have expressed opposition or skepticism about the simple-majority-vote approach and urge them to change their minds and support this approach for the filibuster rule.
  6. Write to the Senators from your State and urge them to support changing the filibuster rule by a simple majority vote.
  7. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and express your support for this effort.

Contact information, including email forms, for current Senators is available on the web. You will have to search for similar information for Senators-Elect.


[1] The recent developments discussed in this post are drawn from the following sources: Noah, Die, Filibuster, Die, New Republic (Nov. 16, 2012), http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/magazine/110215/die-filibuster-die;Weisman, The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/us/politics/new-senates-first-task-will-likely-be-trying-to-fix-itself.html?hp&_r=1&pagewanted=print&;Raju, GOP warns of shutdown over filibuster, Politico (Nov. 25, 2012), http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=ACE6831F-56E7-419A-8137-85D3D3E7BF5E; McAuliff, Mitch McConnell: Filibuster Fight Is An Unnecessary “Bomb” in the Senate, Huffington Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/mitch-mcconnell-filibuster_n_2200494.html?utm_hp_ref=politics; Bernstein, No, Republican obstruction isn’t because Harry Reid is mean to them,  Wash. Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/no-republican-obstruction-isnt-because-harry-reid-is-mean-to-them/2012/11/27/232d2276-38dc-11e2-9258-ac7c78d5c680_blog.html; Collins, Happy Talking, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/opinion/collins-Happy-Talking.html?pagewanted=print; Steinhauer, Resistance on Method for Curbing Filibuster, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/us/politics/method-for-curbing-filibuster-faces-resistance.html?pagewanted=print.