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Was the Filibuster Deal Better for Dems or GOP?

Reid and McConnell inked out the deal that could impact key bills moving forward.

by
Bill Straub

Bio

February 5, 2013 - 12:51 pm
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Sanders expressed support for a “talking filibuster” – requiring those who employ the tactic to hold the floor continuously and explain the reasons behind their objections.

“They should not, however, continue to have the right to abuse arcane Senate rules to block a majority of senators from acting on behalf of the American people,” Sanders said.

McConnell viewed the agreement as a victory for the Republican minority, trumpeting the accomplishment in a fundraising letter to his Bluegrass State constituents. The letter claims McConnell stopped the reform effort “dead in its tracks,” arguing that “a group of the Senate’s most liberal senators, fueled by left-wing groups like MoveOn, have been pushing a dangerous scheme to change the rules of the United States Senate and fundamentally alter the checks and balances of our system.”

After the vote, McConnell said the change in the rule “means that the voices of the members of the minority party and their constituents will still be heard in the Senate. Taking away that right, as some had threatened, would have been a terrible mistake.”

And he indicated the alteration might render some filibusters unnecessary.

“Members on both sides of the aisle should be able to represent their constituents both in committees and on the floor through vigorous debate and a robust amendment process,” McConnell said. “It’s my hope that as we turn to the challenges we face as a nation, the Senate can return to the way it used to operate and that all of us will be able to participate more fully in the legislative process.”

Not everyone on McConnell’s side of the aisle was pleased with the results. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) insisted Senate Democrats “succeeded in seriously weakening the greatest deliberative legislative body in the world.”

“The rules change limits the ability of Senators to offer amendments, stifles debate, and greases the skids for Democrats to implement more of their tax-and-spend agenda,” Paul said. “For these reasons, I voted no.”

The filibuster has been around for a long time but its persistent use is of recent vintage. The Senate in 1806 adopted rules that failed to include a provision on ways to end a debate, opening the door to protracted discussions that could, as a result, kill consideration of legislation by talking it to death. The most famous filibuster of the nation’s early years came in 1841 during a debate to charter the second national bank. When Sen. Henry Clay, of Kentucky, a member of the Whig party, called for a vote, Sen. William R. King, a Democrat from North Carolina and future vice president, refused to end the back and forth, telling Clay that he “may make his arrangements at his boarding house for the winter.” Clay eventually backed down.

A rule permitting cloture – a move to end debate and move to a vote – was adopted in 1917 with two-thirds of those voting needed to move the question. The current 60-vote requirement to invoke cloture was introduced in 1975. In the early 1970s the Senate established a two-track system, which permitted lawmakers to consider other legislation while a bill was being filibustered — effectively ending the practice requiring those blocking consideration to remain on the floor in sometimes marathon sessions.

The most famous filibusters came in the late 1950s and early 1960s over civil rights legislation. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina holds the record for a filibuster, maintaining the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes during consideration of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which eventually passed.

Regardless, for most of its history the filibuster was a seldom used tool. From 1917 to 1970 cloture was invoked 58 times. During the 92nd Congress in 1971-72 the number suddenly jumped to 24. But the real increase began with the 110th Congress in 2007-2008 when 139 cloture motions were filed – the all-time high. The 111th Congress in 2009-2010 was almost as busy with 137 cloture motions filed. Usage slowed a bit during the 112th Congress when the filibuster was used 115 times.

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Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.
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