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Mend the filibuster, don't end it?

"How about if both parties agree to a limited number of cloture votes per congressional session?" suggests Kevin Drum. "Let's say, 20 per session per party. Ditto for holds."

I've heard variants on this idea before, but I don't think it will work. For instance: How do you define a cloture vote? If you're speaking about a straightforward process where the majority leader files for cloture, what's to stop Harry Reid from filing 20 times on the same bill? Or if you mean to say 20 pieces of legislation per congressional session, how do you define a "piece of legislation"? If Democrats slightly tweak the health-care bill, is that a new piece of legislation?

As for holds, I don't know how that would work, as holds are really just individuals promising to use various parliamentary tactics to impede a nomination's progress. Since parties don't wield the power, I don't know how they could apportion it out or keep members from using it as they see fit. I think we're still left needing to decide between a 60-vote requirement on everything or on nothing.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 1, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
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I think decreasing the amount of votes necessary for cloture over time until you reach a simple majority is a good compromise. You'd need 60 votes until 30 hours of debate, then 55 votes for cloture until you reached 45 hours of debate, then 51 once you reached 60 hours of debate. Obviously, you could tweak those as necessary, but it preserves the minority party's ability to extend debate so they can get all of their positions on the record as well as keeping it in the media long enough that maybe the public perception will turn enough to stop the bill. On the other hand, it guarantees that every bill gets an up or down vote eventually.

As I've said before I'd make this the rule for all but judicial nominees, where I think there's a case for a stronger filibuster given the lifetime appointment.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster is not the problem.

It's a lack of leadership and fortitude by Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

Posted by: Lomillialor | March 1, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I agree with MosBen, though I'd like to see this sort of rule in some form for judicial nominees. It could be 60 votes the first month, 55 votes the second month, and so on, but all parties should know that eventually there will be an up-or-down vote on all nominees, in three months or less. If the minority cannot successfully make their case against the nominee in three months, the nominee should get that appointment.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 1, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

@Lomillialor: The filibuster is not the problem, but it is _a_ problem. Granted, there is a lack of leadership and fortitude on the part of Obama, Reid and Pelosi. But the filibuster presents a real obstacle to majority rule, which results in imperfections in politicians torpedoing legislation.

Certainly, if Obama, Pelosi and Reid were all ideal politicians and near-perfect human beings, they would have done everything right and the filibuster wouldn't matter.

But it seems a lot to ask that everybody in leadership positions always be perfect in order for policy objectives to be accomplished.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 1, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Politics in the Senate is too much of a "game" already. To limit the number of filibusters, like having a fixed number of time-outs for coaches to "spend" in sports, just underlines how non-substantive the rules of the process are.

I am not crazy about the idea of having a decreasing number of votes for cloture either. The current partisanship does not make it likely that either party will start the process but give up midway through the decreasing threshold stages.

Either filibusters are a good thing, or they are a bad thing. If the latter, do away with them altogether, don't make Senate procedure even more arcane and baffling to the average citizen.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 1, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Allowing the minority an opportunity to extend debate while still guaranteeing an eventual vote sounds like a reasonable process to me. The U.S. government is based on majority, not consensus.

Posted by: tl_houston | March 1, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Patrick_M, but the people who are worried about the other party pushing through massive reforms without extensive debate do have a point. I don't think that concern outweighs my concern that the majority should have the ability to legislate, but I do think it's a sufficiently realistic concern that we should give them a way to slow things down just a bit. Decreasing the amount of votes for cloture allows the minority a little more time to make their case to the other party and to the public that the bill is a bad idea and to enumerate their reasons. Once their reasons are on the record the public can judge the majority in the next election.

Kevin, you don't think the fact that judicial nominees have lifetime appointments makes them substantially different from legislation or executive branch nominees? The executive branch nominees will be out in a few years and legislation can be amended fairly easily (with the modified filibuster) if there's political will to do so, but it's hard to impeach a judicial nominee once they're confirmed. Is there some way we can empower the minority to legitimately block truly odious nominees while allowing most to be confirmed?

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse


I understand your desire for fairness in allowing some slowdown, but I think the standard Senate process, with all the time spent debating provisions and offering amendments in committee, and then debating the bill and offering amendments in the full Senate, offers the minority ample "time to make their case to the other party and to the public that the bill is a bad idea and to enumerate their reasons."

I don't really think the main intent of the filibuster was ever to give needed added time to make clear what the arguments against a bill would be...the filibuster exists for the sole purpose of stopping legislation. If we are going to keep any form of it, that is still the purpose that it ought to serve.

Trying to preserve a toothless version of the filibuster just does not seem to have much "value added." When it ends, you are still back to majority rule, with just some added time getting siphoned away that could have been productively spent by Senators dealing with other issues.

The USA did just fine before the filibuster was added as a rule, and I will bet that we would not miss it if it was gone. It feels antiquated now (yes, I also felt that way during the Bush years), and I can see no good reason to swap it for an empty imitation, a meaningless time-burning ritual, in my opinion.

But reasonable people can always disagree, and I always respect your thoughtful comments, MosBen.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 1, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

MosBen, I still think that judicial nominations should come up for a up-or-down vote in a predictable timeframe. Make it three months, but they should eventually come up for an up/down vote. Or make all judicial nominees always require a 2/3rds majority, no matter what, if we consider them a special case due to lifetime appointments.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 2, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

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