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Posted at 5:27 PM ET, 12/ 1/2010

Republicans dare Democrats to reform the filibuster

By Ezra Klein

Mitch McConnell's threat to filibuster literally everything Democrats want to do until Democrats and Republicans agree to a compromise on the Bush tax cuts can be read as a power play, but it can also be read as a dare: At this point, Republicans are sure that they can abuse the rules as much as they'd like and Democrats won't dare do a thing about it. McConnell's blanket filibuster now joins Richard Shelby's blanket hold as the two most egregious acts of procedural brinkmanship in a Congress that's been chock-full of rules-based obstruction.

If there's a wild card here, it's Sen. Jeff Merkley and the other Democrats who've been agitating for rules reform for well over a year now. Today, Merkley released his proposal (pdf), and it's a detailed, thoughtful and supportable package of reforms -- even for those who believe in the filibuster.

Merkley starts with a simple observation: "The Senate’s original commitment to full and open debate has been transformed into an attack designed to paralyze and obstruct the Senate’s ability to function as a legislative body." That leads to a principle that's not often associated with reform of the filibuster, but perhaps should be: "Reforms should increase the ability of the minority party to participate in the process. Any approach that fails to take this approach will be viewed as a power grab and will be counterproductive."

He goes on to recommend reforms of the process that will ensure that the Senate has more time and opportunities to both consider and amend legislation, with more members present for the proceedings, and with more of the focus on ensuring debate and discussion. Under his proposal, senators could no longer filibuster the motion to proceed to debate on the bill because that, after all, leads to less debate. They also couldn't filibuster amendments, as that also leads to less debate and consideration. The opportunity to filibuster, rather, would be at the final vote, when there is a completed piece of legislation to debate.

Once a filibuster has started, Merkley would like to see it resemble the public conception of the practice. So rather than a private communication between members of the two parties’ leadership teams, it would actually be a floor debate -- and a crowded one. The first 24 hours would need five filibustering senators to be present, the second 24 hours would require 10, and after that, the filibuster would require 20 members of the minority on the floor continuously. Meanwhile, there would have to be an ongoing debate: "If a speaker concludes (arguing either side) and there is no senator who wishes to speak, the regular order is immediately restored, debate is concluded and a
simple majority vote is held according to further details established in the rules. ... Americans who tune in to observe the filibuster would not see a quorum call, but would see a debate in process."

This is filibuster reform that even the filibuster's supporters can love: It focuses the practice on the tradition of debate and discussion that Senate traditionalists consider to be the institution's indispensable trait. Even so, a few days ago, I would've told you it didn't have a chance, as there'd be no energy to look at the rules again. But McConnell's announcement of a blanket filibuster that's meant to stop the Senate from debating legislation rather than ensure that all sides have time to be heard may be just the push the traditionalists needed.

By Ezra Klein  | December 1, 2010; 5:27 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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"Under his proposal, senators could no longer filibuster the motion to proceed to debate on the bill because that, after all, leads to less debate. They also couldn't filibuster amendments, as that also leads to less debate and consideration. The opportunity to filibuster, rather, would be at the final vote, when there is a completed piece of legislation to debate."

I'd start with these two reforms first and see where that leaves us.

Posted by: jnc4p | December 1, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

I hope these reforms are accepted. If they are, there may be hope for America, yet!

However, reforming the filibuster would lead to more action in the Senate, action that may be perceived as "wins" for Obama.

The GOP can't let that happen!!!

I pray this filibuster is reformed soon. We are at a crossroads as a nation, and one side of our political establishment is not interested in progress. Their opposition doesn't have the stones to force direly important issues. Please don't point to healthcare as a sign of progress. They passed that with 60 Dems. 60!! That's ancient history.

Posted by: will12 | December 1, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

How about....wait for it......we abolish the lame duck session of Congress?

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 1, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Way too reasonable and effective to be adopted.

Posted by: pmcgann | December 1, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

"This is filibuster reform that even the filibuster's supporters can love"

I'd say that reasonable well meaning filibuster supporters could love it, but our current generation of filibuster lovers appear neither reasonable or well meaning.

Posted by: slantedview | December 1, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Unlikely to happen because at least 2 members of the Democratic caucus get disproportionate love and attention as a result of needing 60 votes: Ben Nelson and Joe Liebermann. That leaves a margin of exactly two votes. Mark Pryor is unlikely to go along as well. That's a one-vote-margin, which is Biden's tie-breaker.

Posted by: ctown_woody | December 1, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

I am not holding my breath.

But I have to say "how about . . . wait for it . . . we abolish the lame duck session of Congress" is about the single most moronic thing I have read all day.

Posted by: randrewm | December 1, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, this is disingenuous of you. Nobody championed the filibuster like Robert Byrd, and the ONLY reason any Democrat dares talk about changing the rules is because he's going to be a little late for the vote this time!

In any case Obama has himself targeted like the new kid in the schoolyard who won't fight back. Until/unless he learns to fight, it's all over in 2012.

Posted by: 54465446 | December 1, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Follow-up to my earlier comment, forgot about Machin in West Virginia. So, barring a caucus rule change that enforces stricter party-line voting on procedural motions, that's 49 Democrats/Socialists vs. 51 Republicans, Liebermanns and Democrats against.

Posted by: ctown_woody | December 1, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Go, Jeff, go!

Posted by: willNeuhauser | December 1, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Democrats face a choice on January 3, 2011. By a majority vote they can disarm the filibuster and secure themselves 2 years of productivity which will enhance their chances of continuing in control after 2012, or they can timidly allow the filibuster to continue for the next 2 years on the assumption they will need it when they are voted into the minority in 2012, which will mean they are giving up all hope of being effective for the next 2 years, which will mean inviting and guaranteeing defeat in 2012. I urge you to disarm the filibuster. There is no guarantee that after a defeat in 2012 that a Republican majority would not rob the Democrats of minority protection by outlawing the filibuster on January 3, 2013 by simple majority vote at that time. The filibuster has been such an abuse to the country, as the current majority, it would be terrible and stupid for the Democrats to continue it. The question is will Democrats outlaw it now or will they leave it to Republicans to outlaw it, which Republicans will do if or when Republicans gain majority control. For sure Republicans will never allow what they have done to Democrats these past 2 years to be done in return against Republicans by some Democrat minority in the future. The golden rule does not apply.

Posted by: 51STEPS | December 1, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

51STEPS: +1. No way do I think Republicans will retain the same rules as soon as they gain a majority. May as well get rid of the filibuster in January.

Posted by: dasimon | December 1, 2010 9:28 PM | Report abuse

Kind of stupid to give up the filibuster. There's no reason to use it anymore for the most part now that John Boehner is in charge.

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 1, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Do away with the fillibuster. The Senate rules are such that you can slow things down other ways. How long do you think it would take to read every word of every bill out loud. The estimate for the health care bill was 8 days. I find all this outrage over the fillibuster from Democrats to be HIPOCRACY of the highest order

Posted by: bjeagle784 | December 1, 2010 11:05 PM | Report abuse

The GOP seriously abused the filibuster procedure to STOP n STALL the Obama Agenda. It worked because the BLUE-dog Dems destroyed any form of unity in the US Senate. Meanwhile, the House set records legislating in response to the world and nation's economic demise. Sen. Feinstein of CA most recently held the unique chance to change the filibuster; but, like Sen Reid, the Democratic sense of honor prevented any real changes. Too bad, the GOP are organized, intelligent, and highly aggressive to advance their position. Plus, the GOP stay unified against the DEMS.

RESULT: the GOP obtained the big $$ support in the mid-term, despite Obama's following his advisors not to make big changes to regulate the financial institutions. There is no question: the DEMS will not make any change to the filibuster procedure. When the GOP regain control (unless Obama does an LBJ) in two years, there will be short-n-sweet changes re the filibuster.

The DEMS are too genteel in their language; the GOP's version will be less inclined to be FAIR toward the minority side. Winning means you have gained the right to make any change you want to the rules. The DEMS always forget the day-after: they seemed more interested in the glory and picking the fuzz out of their noses. Answer: Who wants to back and $upport a LOSER party?

Posted by: georgetomer62 | December 2, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

Democratss have to get with it. It has reached the point where a 73 year old like myself is embarrassed be be called democrat. I worked hard for O'Bama and find now he is the chief wimp with amajority of wimps in the house and the senate. Where is the leadership? What are these guys afraid of? If our democrats want to endorse and facilitate the GOP agenda, we might as well vote the genuine republlicans, not the phonies. Right now I am predicting a one term O'Bama and another sweep against the democrats next election. Only way to stay in power is for a new democrat for president. Sen Jim Webb would probably be the best democrat we could run for preeident. Don't believe me? Watch the evening lineup on MSNBC. Rank and file base jumping ship.

Posted by: tmd678 | December 2, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Show me one member of Congress, Republican or Democrat who really gives a damn about the electorate - except, perhaps for garnering their vote in the next election. We really need a Ted Kennedy...I disagreed with him on most things but you at least knew he was using his brain and trying to help his fellow citizens.

In recent history the filibuster has been used to stifle debate - if debate were allowed the electorate might really learn the truth about who and what is influencing our "esteemed" members of Congress.

Posted by: vagaf31 | December 2, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

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