Reforming the Filibuster

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Why doesn’t Harry Reid force Republicans who want to engage in filibusters to really filibuster? Read the phone book, recite the constitution, etc. Answer: because he has to keep at least 50 Democrats on the floor at all times to make this happen. Otherwise the filibusterer will just demand a quorum call and then take a nap or go home until enough Dems are rousted out of bed to keep the Senate in session. Basically, a majority of the Democratic caucus has to stay on the Senate floor at all times, while the Republicans can just tag team, each one talking for a few hours and then handing the baton off to a colleague.

Senator Frank Lautenberg wants to change that by making “dilatory quorum calls” out of order after a cloture motion has been filed:

In response to the growing misuse of the filibuster as a tool to obstruct work in Congress, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) today announced introduction of the Mr. Smith Bill to require Senators who want to filibuster a bill to actually show up on the Senate floor and engage in debate. Once debate ends and Senators no longer seek to speak, the vote could be held immediately.

“If a Senator wants to delay our work in the Senate, then that Senator must show up on the floor and debate,” stated Sen. Lautenberg. “Filibusters should happen on Capitol Hill, not from the Capital Grille. If any of my colleagues feel strongly enough about a bill or nomination to stop all work in the Senate, they should have no problem standing on the Senate floor to explain their opposition to the American public.”

The problem, of course, is that Lautenberg’s bill can be filibustered, and since it’s a rule change it would require 67 votes to pass. There’s no chance of that, obviously. But National Review editor Daniel Foster explains how it could be done:

The bar would be lowered significantly at the beginning of the next Congress in January 2011, however. At that point, only a simple majority will be required to change the Senate’s standing rules.

That’s true, though I’m a little surprised to see an NR editor admitting it so candidly. But as near as I can tell, it’s absolutely correct that Senate rules can be changed at the beginning of a new session as long as Democrats retain their majority and the vice president is willing to provide the needed rulings on objections from the minority. Harry Reid has already said he’s willing to consider this, which means the rest is up to Joe Biden and his boss. No word from them, yet, though.

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