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Senators tangle over much-needed filibuster reform

Democrats and Republicans on Monday fought over the arcane issue of the Senate filibuster, with Democrats saying they want to change the rules and Republicans threatening to grind progress to a halt if they do.

The key question: Would anybody notice the difference between filibuster-related gridlock and regular gridlock?

Presently, if a senator wants to block a bill, he or she threatens to filibuster, or basically talk continuously to delay the vote. (This talking doesn’t actually happen; it’s just a threat.) A motion to cut off debate and proceed to a vote on the actual bill – called “cloture” – is filed, but that requires 60 of the Senate’s 100 votes. Because neither side has a 60-vote majority, the cloture vote usually sinks the bill.

Reid’s solution: Eliminate the “cloture” vote on motions to proceed. A senator could still filibuster, but he or she would actually have to stand on the Senate floor and talk continuously during debate of the bill. (Reid himself once did this for nine hours in 2003.)

Reid could have already had this solution in place, had he allowed Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M, and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to change the rules at the beginning of this session of Congress. Reid admitted this year that blocking the change was a mistake.

But now, he’s proceeding to reform the motion to proceed, and it’s not going over well.

“I have faced 386 filibusters. [Former Senate Majority Leader and later President] Lyndon Johnson, one,” Reid said on the Senate floor Monday. “It’s time to get the Senate working again, not for the good of the current Democratic majority or future majority, but for the good of the country.”

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has a problem with that.

McConnell said Reid would “break the rules of the Senate in order to change the rules of the Senate.” (That’s not true; Senate procedures allow for the adoption of new rules at the beginning of each session of Congress by a simple majority vote, what Udall and Merkley called “the constitutional option.”)

McConnell said there are so many filibusters because Reid refuses to allow Republicans to bring amendments to a bill during debates.

“So, look, we don’t have a rules problem, we have a behavioral problem, and when the majority leader believes that he gets to decide what happens on every bill, that’s beyond the purview of the job that he holds,” McConnell added.

Actually, controlling the flow of legislation and the amendments to that legislation is one of the perks of leadership. And isn’t it funny how many amendments seek to undermine the purpose of a bill in the first place?

McConnell’s solution? Force senators who want to debate the motion to proceed to do it, and make them stay up past their bedtimes. No, really: “What I would have done is put somebody in the chair, keep the person objecting here up all night and wear him down. We’re almost never in at night. … It’s pretty easy working in the Senate because we never use the fatigue factor to accomplish things.”

Let’s hope cantankerous senators never discover Red Bull.

Other senators were even more dramatic than McConnell. “I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Politico. “It will shut down the Senate,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

But Reid – who appears to be sticking to his pledge to reform the filibuster – was not persuaded. “And the threats that come from the other side, ‘Whoa, we’re going to make you Democrats, we’re going to make you suffer, man. If you do this, it’s going to be terrible.’ What more could they do to us?” he asked.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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