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

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Such talk has circulated before, and it picked up steam after the Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006. But it has recently become far more tangible, with four different Democratic bills filed to revamp the Senate's procedures. On July 28 Democrats raised the issue at a Senate Rules Committee hearing on the subject: "We are not getting the people's business done, and ordinary Americans are losing faith in the legislative process," said Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, author of one of the bills. "The filibuster itself was meant to keep the flow of debate going, not to stop the Senate in its tracks."

Republicans reject the charges, insisting that they are using the filibuster as a much-needed check on an ambitious Democratic majority, which has sought quick votes on 2,000-page bills no one has time to read. "[Senate majority leader Harry] Reid says he wants to be bipartisan, and then he runs to the floor and files for cloture before negotiations have even begun," says a senior GOP Senate aide. "They're trying to ram legislation through — we're not here to rubber-stamp."

For now, the anti-filibuster Democrats face an uphill battle. Even within the party, there is disagreement over the controversial move. About 10 moderate and long-serving Democrats are particularly skeptical of the change. "I think as torturous as this place can be, the cloture rule and the filibuster is important to protect the rights of the minority," Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, told the Hill newspaper this week. "My inclination is no."

Nevertheless, two ideas are gaining traction within the caucus that could help relieve some of the procedural bottlenecks — one of which may see action soon. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri has proposed doing away with secret "holds," a tactic by which a Senator can anonymously block a bill or nomination for any reason they see fit. (The holds can be broken by a simple majority vote, but overcoming such objections — and even outing the Senator doing the holding — is considered a breach of decorum and is rarely done.) McCaskill has convinced 67 of her colleagues to support the change, enough for the two-thirds majority needed to pass it, and Reid has added her measure to the Senate calendar. Democrats are also discussing the possibility of restricting the ability of Republicans to filibuster a bill or amendment to twice — once to start debate and once to end it.

Some Democrats admit that changing the Senate's rules could come back to bite them should they lose control of the chamber to Republicans. "What if the tables were turned? What if they become the majority and we have to stop them?" Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois mused at Wednesday's Rules Committee hearing. "That basic fear, concern, guides us on this in terms of how far we should go." Still, Durbin is a supporter of change. "I would argue at this point that we've got to do something," he said. That some senior Democrats are willing to put themselves at the mercy of a future Republican majority tells you just how frustrated they've become with filibuster politics.

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