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November 13, 2012

Filibuster Reform Support Still Short of a Majority in the Senate

Posted in: Uncategorized

With the expectation of a series of new cabinet appointments (though not Attorney General, apparently) comes the expectation of a number of bruising nomination fights on the floor of the Senate. In particular, Senate Republicans seem to want to collect a scalp if UN Ambassador Susan Rice gets nominated to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. They blame Rice for providing false information about the attack on the consulate in Benghazi.

Republicans may or may not have the muscle to get this done. But they certainly would not if Democrats simply ended the undemocratic, extra-Constitutional super-majority Senate through changes to the rules process. The Senate has become a completely dysfunctional body as a result of the routine use of the filibuster and other obstruction and delay tactics from the minority.

Unfortunately, Democrats claim they do not yet have the votes from among their own ranks to make the changes necessary to end minority rule:

Democrats don’t have the 51 votes they need in the Senate to change filibuster rules that could make it harder for the GOP minority to wield power in the upper chamber.

Lawmakers leading the charge acknowledge they remain short, but express optimism they’ll hit their goal.

“I haven’t counted 51 just yet, but we’re working,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a leading proponent of the so-called constitutional or “nuclear” option, in which Senate rules could be changed by a majority vote.

“We’re building the momentum right now,” Udall said. “It’s hard to say at this point, but I think it’s looking very good. The last two years have really helped coalesce people’s minds around the idea that we need to change the way we do business.”
The problem for Udall and other supporters of filibuster reform is that many veteran Democratic senators remember when the filibuster was a useful tool in their years in the minority.

Provided that Joe Biden supports the cause, the magic number would actually be 50. And I’m not sure the votes aren’t there already. In 2011, the holdout votes on the Democratic side were Jim Webb, Max Baucus, Herb Kohl, Mark Pryor, Jack Reed and Reid, with Dianne Feinstein, John Kerry and Daniel Inouye not voting. In all, Democrats got 44 votes. All incoming Democrats support reform, meaning Webb and Kohl have been replaced by pro-reform members. Add Reid and you’re up to 47, plus the two flipped seats, in Massachusetts and Maine (Angus King strongly supports reform), pushing it to 49. So if John Kerry comes back and supports (I forget exactly why he missed the vote), you’ve got 50.

Incidentally, the New York Times editorial board came out in support of Senate rules reform, though I’m not sure whether that will move the old lion Democrats in the Senate who still haven’t given their consent.

It’s important to recognize that the plan put forward by Udall and Jeff Merkley would not abolish the filibuster. It would just make it harder to employ, forcing the minority party to actually talk, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style, on the floor of the Senate, in order to block a vote from occurring.

Two years ago, Harry Reid wasn’t on board with rules reform. His endorsement makes passage of something much more likely. However, he seems most on board with the elimination of the filibuster on the motion to proceed. This would shrink the amount of post-cloture time that would have to be burned off before moving to the legislation at hand, but the minority could still block the final bill through a filibuster. In other words, Harry Reid supports the reform that would most help the person scheduling votes in the Senate, i.e. Harry Reid.

The point is that the changes, whatever they are, will not remove the 60-vote Senate we’ve come to internalize over the years, even if it makes it a little easier to do business. This means a continued minority veto, and continued dysfunction.

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