Benjamin Franklin’s concern about the function of the Senate, it’s accountability, and the nature of its influence is more important today than when he raised the issue during the Constitutional Convention. More than one-half the nation’s population lives in just ten states, but they have only one-fifth of the votes in the Senate. This means that 12 percent of the U.S. population controls forty-one votes and can immobilize that chamber.
Given the transient character of the population and the changing nature of individual states, it is hard to justify this imbalance. Rules of the Senate, such as the filibuster must be reformed to encourage open debate and actual votes on the nation’s business.
GOP warns of shutdown over filibuster
By MANU RAJU
A partisan war is brewing that could bring the government to a screeching halt as early as January — and no, it’s not over the fiscal cliff.
It’s all about the filibuster.
Democrats are threatening to change filibuster rules, in what will surely prompt a furious GOP revolt that could make those rare moments of bipartisan consensus even harder to come by during the next Congress.
Here’s what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering: banning filibusters used to prevent debate from even starting and House-Senate conference committees from ever meeting. He also may make filibusters become actual filibusters — to force senators to carry out the nonstop, talkathon sessions.
Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules.
“I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.”
“It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”
The push will happen at the start of the new Congress, when Reid will unveil a rules package certain to have some changes to the filibuster. The exact contents of that package have yet to be finalized, as is the decision on whether to invoke the so-called nuclear option — 51 votes — to push it through. But Democratic senators are urging Reid to take steps ranging from the most draconian one of virtually eliminating the filibuster to more piecemeal changes designed to discourage the use of the stalling tactic.
What Reid appears most likely to do is push for an end to the filibuster on so-called motions to proceed, or the beginning of a debate on bills or nominations. If Reid goes this route, senators could still filibuster virtually any other aspect of Senate business, including any movement to end debate and call for a final vote on a bill.
And Reid is strongly considering pushing for other filibuster changes, too — most notably requiring senators to actually go to the floor and carry out an endless talking session, rather than simply threaten them as they do now. Reminiscent of the 1939 movie classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the idea has picked up steam in liberal circles — and its intent is to discourage senators from filibustering, though it would fundamentally change the very nature of the modern Senate.
“We cannot allow the Senate to be dysfunctional by the use of filibusters,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Reid’s No. 2. “We’ve had over 300 filibusters in the last six years — it’s unprecedented. What we’re talking about is very basic — you want to start a filibuster, you want to stop the business of the Senate, by goodness’ sake, park your fanny on the floor of the Senate and speak. If you want to go to dinner and go home over the weekend, be prepared, the Senate is moving forward.”
By and large, Reid and his caucus are on board with this approach — they are furious at what they see as deliberate attempts by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues to threaten filibusters on even the most routine pieces of legislation or noncontroversial nominations simply to stall President Barack Obama’s agenda.
“They have made it an almost impossible task to get things done,” Reid said.
While several incoming freshmen, including Massachusetts liberal Elizabeth Warren, support changing the rules by a majority vote, it could present a problem for other new Democrats who ran as consensus builders to have to cast a partisan vote on their very first action next year.
“It isn’t a concern just because the Republicans are concerned,” said Rep. Joe Donnelly, the incoming Indiana Democratic senator. “We want to make sure we protect the things that make the Senate unique, so I want to make sure I make the right decision on this.”
Republicans say this is a problem of the Democrats’ own making. They blame Reid for quickly attempting to shut down debate without giving Republicans a chance to offer amendments, even on bills that skip the committee process entirely.
Republicans say eliminating filibusters — even on a piecemeal basis — will undermine the fundamental underpinnings of the Senate as a body designed to operate on consensus and protect the minority party, making the body run like the House, where the majority rules with an iron fist.
“If what [Reid] talks about doing is in fact what he does, … then that reduces that much more leverage of the minority to insist on an open amendment process,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said. “I worry about it.”
At the start of the 112th Congress, Reid and McConnell — along with Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Lamar Alexander — brokered a “gentleman’s agreement” to operate the Senate more openly and avert a filibuster showdown on the floor.
But that process quickly broke down, and Reid later admitted that he made a mistake when he dissuaded Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) from pushing forward a sweeping filibuster reform package, which they dubbed the “constitutional option.” The procedural squabbling hit fever pitch in October 2011, when Reid forced through a change in the rules to limit the ability of senators to force votes on amendments once a filibuster was defeated.
While the change in the rule did not alter the legislative process substantively, the process employed by Reid outraged Republicans, since he forced through a change to Senate precedents by a 51-48 vote — rather than by two-thirds. While this arcane process is allowed under Senate procedures, it’s rarely employed for fear future majorities would replicate the tactics and work their will over minority rights to stall legislation — something McConnell gravely warned Reid about.
When Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatened to employ a similar maneuver in 2005, Democratic critics labeled it as the “nuclear option.”
“Then-Sen. Obama thought it would be wrong to make the changes when the Republicans were in the majority; then-Sen. [Joe] Biden thought it was a bad idea when the Democrats were in the minority; and Harry Reid thought it was an awful idea when he was in the minority because he said no one group should be able to run roughshod over the other group,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), No. 4 in GOP leadership.
Other Republicans warn it will further damage an already toxic political climate at a time of monumental economic and budgetary problems.
“This is not the time to create a divisive distraction that Democrats said in 2006 would destroy the United States Senate,” Alexander told POLITICO. “One of the biggest ways to do that, not to [reach a budget deficit deal], is to do what Sen. Reid said in 2006, would be to use the nuclear option to blow up the Senate by trying to change the filibuster rules.”
But Democrats don’t think the changes will prevent the minority from exerting its rights. And if Democrats push through their “talking filibuster” plan, both Barrasso and Coburn say they’d be willing to go to the floor and make their objections heard.
“I’ll filibuster any way I can,” Coburn said. “If you want to filibuster, you ought to be willing to get out and earn it. I don’t have any problems with that.”
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