Real Filibuster Reform Appears to Be Dead in the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/americanprogressaction/4972157648/sizes/m/in/photostream/">Center for American Progress</a>/Flickr

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The fight to rewrite the filibuster, that pesky blocking maneuver used by senators to quietly kill a bill before it even arrives on the Senate floor, appears to be over. As the Huffington Post reports, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have cut a compromise deal that will make it easier for the Senate to begin debating new legislation, while also speeding up the process of voting to confirm the president’s judicial nominations. But the deal does not include the major reform liberals wanted: the so-called “talking filibuster,” which would force senators to remain speaking on the Senate floor for as long as they wanted to filibuster.

Here’s more from HuffPost:

[Reid and McConnell] also agreed that they will make some changes in how the Senate carries out filibusters under the existing rules, reminiscent of the handshake agreement last term, which quickly fell apart. First, senators who wish to object or threaten a filibuster must actually come to the floor to do so. And second, the two leaders will make sure that debate time post-cloture is actually used in debate. If senators seeking to slow down business simply put in quorum calls to delay action, the Senate will go live, force votes to produce a quorum, and otherwise work to make sure senators actually show up and debate.

The arrangement between Reid and McConnell means that the majority leader will not resort to his controversial threat, known as the “nuclear option,” to change the rules via 51 votes on the first day of the congressional session. Reid may have been able to get greater reforms that way, but several members of his own party were uncomfortable with the precedent it would have set. And Reid himself, an institutionalist, wanted a bipartisan deal for the longterm health of the institution. Reid presented McConnell with two offers—one bipartisan accord consisting of weaker reforms, and a stronger package Reid was willing to ram through on a partisan vote. McConnell chose the bipartisan route.

The Reid-McConnell deal is nothing to dismiss. It should accelerate the pace of bringing new bills to the floor and confirming nominations in the Senate. But it is a stinging defeat for progressive senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who fought hardest for the talking filibuster.

Merkley and Udall’s proposal makes perfect sense when you stop and think about it. If you want to stymie a piece of legislation, or deny a vote on a judicial nominee of the president’s, then stand up and explain why and don’t stop until you’re done blocking whatever it is you don’t agree with. The way it works now, senators can filibuster in absentia, meaning they don’t need to be on the Senate floor—or even in Washington, DC!—to block a bill. Senators now filibuster more than ever, objecting to even the most routine bills and nominations. As Merkley recently noted, there was just one vote to try to break a filibuster during Lyndon Johnson’s time as Senate leader in the late 1950s; under Harry Reid, there are have been 391 such votes.

But even some Democrats in the Senate didn’t like the talking filibuster idea. They still believe the filibuster will be useful when, inevitably, they’re the minority party in the Senate, and they feel complelled to block the GOP’s agenda. 

The Reid-McConnell compromise is also a blow to the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of labor unions, enviros, voting rights groups, and other progressive outfits that had embraced filibuster reform as its new cause célèbre. That coalition lobbied hard in the Senate this month and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads to promote the talking filibuster. Now they’re left empty-handed. A related filibuster reform group, Fix the Senate, blasted out this statement Thursday morning: “If the agreement proceeds as expected, Senator Reid and the entire chamber will have missed an opportunity to restore accountability and deliberation to the Senate, while not raising the costs of obstruction.”

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