Democrats Step Up Moves to Limit Senate Filibusters

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Left: Ethan Miller / Getty Images; Everett

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, left, and Jimmy Stewart in a scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

When Democrats awoke the day after the 2008 election to overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate, plus control of the White House, many imagined they would be able to accomplish nearly anything they wanted. It seemed possible that Congress would finish health care reform within a year, including a strong "public option" plan. A climate bill would sail through, along with immigration reform, the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act and an end to the ban on non-closeted gays in the military.

But the reality has been very different. Health care passed, but just barely, months behind schedule and with no public option. Every other measure listed above is a nonstarter or in limbo. The Obama White House struggles to pass even minor measures designed to create jobs in the sick economy.

What happened to those Democratic hopes? They have been shattered by the Republicans' unprecedented reliance on the filibuster, a legislative maneuver that can slam the brakes on even popular legislation. The filibuster allows 41 Senators to block a bill from coming to a vote by voting against motions to end debate (which need 60 votes to pass). Since Barack Obama took office, Senate Republicans have used the tactic dozens of times, throwing the President's agenda into chaos and infuriating Democrats. In late December, an exasperated Obama told a PBS interviewer that he was tired of seeing even "routine" measures fall to GOP filibusters. "If this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems," Obama said. "We're going to have to return to some sense that governance is more important than politics inside the Senate."

Now some leading Democrats are ready to act on that frustration. They've begun pushing in earnest to change the Senate rules to end what they consider anti-democratic filibuster abuse. Republicans are already denouncing it as a political power grab. If the Democrats follow through on their plans, Washington could be in for a bloody political brawl.

The filibuster may be business as usual in Washington today, but it wasn't always. Not long ago, the tactic was a rarity, considered a measure of extreme last resort for major pieces of legislation. In the 1969-70 session of Congress, the filibuster wasn't used a single time. In 1977-78, it was used only three times. But as the Senate has grown more partisan in recent years, the filibuster has become a tool for the minority to thwart the majority at every opportunity. After Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2001, they set a record with 34 filibuster attempts. Republicans outdid them in the last session of Congress with 61 filibusters. In the current Congress, Senate Republicans are already at 53 with five months left to go.

Assuming that the Democrats retain control of the Senate, as expected, January might provide a rare window of opportunity: when the Senate reorganizes at the beginning of a new session of Congress, the rules can be changed with just a simple majority of 51 votes. If such a rule change is put into effect, the Senate would henceforth be run like the House, with bills needing only a simple majority to pass.

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