WASHINGTON – Recent changes in the Senate’s filibuster rule, a longstanding procedure that some reformers want to abolish, wound up doing little to disrupt the tactic, investing the legislative minority with the continued opportunity to make political hash of the majority’s whims.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, after announcing last week that he had reached an agreement with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, on a few small modifications, told reporters he wasn’t prepared to dump the rule requiring sponsors of certain legislation to collect 60 votes in the 100-member upper chamber to assure a vote.
“Today, we took steps towards ending gridlock in the Senate and making this body a more efficient place while still respecting the rights of the minority,” Reid said. “Americans of all political stripes can agree that Washington is not working the way it should. We were elected to get things done for the middle class — not waste time with endless stalling tactics that cause even bills with broad bipartisan support to languish for weeks. These reforms will allow us to deal with legislation in a more timely fashion and weaken the ability of those who seek to obstruct for obstruction’s sake.”
Just how the refurbished filibuster rule will accomplish that feat is unclear.
Under the agreement, adopted by the full Senate, the majority leader, Reid in this case, can sidestep a filibuster imposed to obstruct debate. He can accomplish that by either reaching an agreement with the minority leader, in this case McConnell, and seven senators from each side to proceed to a new bill or allowing the minority to offer two amendments to the proposed legislation.
The new rule, however, does nothing to halt a filibuster blocking a final vote on legislation. In other words, Reid has been afforded an opportunity to circumvent a filibuster that prevents debate. But sponsors still might require the consent of 60 members to proceed to a vote.
Limits on debates regarding sub-cabinet and district court nominations are also included in the agreement.
The feebleness of the change could be on full display if or when the full Senate takes up the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to serve as the next secretary of defense. Hagel, despite being a Republican, has attracted support from only two GOP lawmakers in the upper chamber and there is some discussion that someone – perhaps Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, leading the opposition – may institute a filibuster.
The move would be unprecedented. No cabinet nominee has faced a filibuster since the Senate approved the 60-vote threshold almost 40 years ago.
The deal didn’t sit well with reformers, some of whom favored the “nuclear option” – prohibiting the imposition of a filibuster to stop a vote, thus permitting legislation to pass by a simple majority rather than requiring it to attract 60 votes.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan “good government” group that has received some funding from George Soros’ philanthropic organization, is challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster in federal court and turned a thumbs-down on the deal.
“My friend Harry Reid, the senator from Searchlight, NV, has gone missing in the fight for filibuster reform,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “The deal he and Sen. McConnell have struck allows individual senators to continue blocking debate and action by the entire body and to do so without explaining themselves to their colleagues or the American people. This is not the Senate of debate and deliberation our founders envisioned.”
Reform-minded lawmakers also expressed displeasure.
“This country faces major crises in terms of the economy and unemployment, the deficit, global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, education and a crumbling infrastructure – to name a few,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats and voted against the changes. “In my view, none of these problems will be effectively addressed so long as one senator can demand 60 votes to pass legislation. The rule changes adopted today are a step forward in making the operations of the Senate more efficient and expeditious. They are not enough.”
Sanders said a filibuster imposed to permanently obstruct the wishes of the majority is “a perversion of democracy.” And use is on the rise. When former President Lyndon Johnson was Senate Democratic leader in the 1950s – during the administration of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower – he filed cloture to end a filibuster only once. Reid has done so 390 times.