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Democrats Try to Initiate Filibuster Reform for the New Year

by Terri Harel, published

Increasingly frustrated over the use of filibusters in the 112th Congress, some senators are pushing to initiate filibuster reform before the new year.

In particular, Democrats have been advocating for the changes after increasing gridlock in Congress due to stalled legislation from filibusters put forth by Republicans.

Currently, senators do not need to actually stand on the chamber floor to initiate a filibuster, continue debate, and thus block legislation. senators are allowed to make a request for filibuster with a simple phone call. In order to overcome that request, the majority leader would have to file cloture and wait for the 60 votes it takes to allow the cloture to stand.

The process is not only highly inefficient and lengthy, the 55-45 split in the Senate makes it nearly impossible to achieve the 60 votes needed to uphold cloture and proceed with legislation, giving the filibuster a high success rate.

There were more filibusters in Congress between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, combined. Although the filibuster was originally intended to protect the rights of the minority party, it has become an easy way for lawmakers to block or delay debate on particular legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) told reporters this week,

‘‘I think that the rules have been abused and that we’re going to work to change them…We’re not going to do away with the filibuster, but we’re going to make the Senate a more meaningful place, we’re going to make it so that we can get things done.’’

The tension over the reforms comes at an awkward and critical time, as President Obama is trying to bridge a contentious gap between Democrats and Republicans over the upcoming fiscal cliff. Any missteps in the already sensitive bipartisanship efforts could severely hinder productivity in the new legislative year.

Newly elected Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) published an Op-Ed in the Huffington Post Thursday, reiterating Senator Reid’s plea to reform the filibuster. She writes,

"But here's the honest truth: we'll never do any of that if we can't get up-or-down votes in the Senate…[The current filibuster process] is not open debate -- that's paralyzing progress…The change can be modest: If someone objects to a bill or a nomination in the United States Senate, they should have to stand on the floor of the chamber and defend their opposition. I'm joining Senator Jeff Merkley and six other newly elected senators to pledge to lead this reform on Day One, and I hope you'll be right there with us. Our campaign didn't end on Election Day -- and I'm counting on you to keep on working each and every day to bring real change for working families. This is the first step."

Currently, the reform is depending on the constitutional (also called the “nuclear”) option, in which Senate rules can be changed by a majority vote. The Democrats would need at least 51 votes to reform the filibuster but, as of this week, they had not yet achieved those numbers. Despite having majority in the Senate, the Democrat reforms don’t have the full support of their party, with some veteran members still skeptical of the changes.

It seems, however, that there could be Republicans on board with reform as well. Tom Udall, Democrat from New Mexico, who has been actively seeking filibuster reform throughout his term in office, recently told The Hill:

“I think there should be some support from Republicans on this one. We’re working with them. We’re having private discussions. I can tell you privately many Republicans are not happy with the way we do business in the Senate right now.”

Some worry that if the nuclear option were to succeed, it would initiate political blowback with more severe partisanship. Republicans worry that this kind of “hijacking” of the system’s rules, changed by the votes of one party, is “poisoning the well” and would further sour relations between the two parties.

 Photo credit: Kevin Lamarque

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