Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 16, 2010

CHANGING THE WAY THE SENATE DOES BUSINESS.... As the 112th Congress draws closer, the talk of reforming the way the Senate operates gets louder.

This morning, I joined a conference call with Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who are helping take the lead with their proposed "constitutional option."

The plan, roughly: on January 5, when votes are taken to organize the Senate, get 51 votes to reform cloture so that objecting to legislation forces continuous debate.

"I think all of you have observed that we've done no appropriations this year," said Merkley, setting up fundamental filibuster reform as a necessity, good for all sides. "It's very much damaging our advise and consent function."

Udall argued that the filibuster could be reformed because "there have been precedents by three vice presidents that you can cut off debate and move to a majority vote." He had a caveat: "We don't want to make any rules changes that would hurt our ability to speak out in a minority situation."

In theory, a cloture vote is intended to cut off debate -- thus allowing for more debate. But it's become a procedural sham. It's not like the failure on a cloture vote leads to more discussion; it leads to moving on to other issues entirely.

"There's nothing to compel senators to engage in the debate that they've said they want to have," Merkley said, adding, "The advantage of continuous debate is that it honors the premise of the cloture vote. Here is my position. Here is why I'm not ready to vote yet. Here is my case. Senators can stand on the floor to make that case, and their colleagues can say 'you're a hero' or 'you're a bum.'"

After the call, the two were prepared to take their case to the rest of the Democratic caucus, where they suggested there might be a generation gap of sorts -- the "old guard," with members who've been around for a long while, are likely the most reluctant to change, while newer members are more inclined to make the Senate less dysfunctional.

Of course, the more the public is engaged on this issue, the more likely senators will feel pressure about changing the way the chamber does business.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent noted earlier, "It's worth noting that for the first time, the push to reform the Senate and change the filibuster is taking on the feeling of a real movement -- one with real institutional support on the left and a growing power base within the Senate itself."

The point is to make this reform push mainstream -- which it should be. The Senate wasn't designed to work this way; the Senate never used to work this way; and the Senate quite literally doesn't work this way.

There's obviously quite a few developments unfolding at the same time on Capitol Hill right now, but these reform efforts will be ongoing, just below the surface. They're worth keeping an eye on -- the Senate's ability to govern in 2011 may depend on it.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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Comments

The repugnance of a constant 60% threshold to do the business of the people, if continued, will become anathema to our upper Chamber!

McConnell and his extortionist brethren are not small "d" democrats! They're at worst dismantlers of our revered democratic institutions and at mid-range practitioners of democratic ill-fortune, and at the least, apologists for the most avarice elements of our beloved nation!

Drop the procedural nuclear option on the Republicans' asses this next Congress!

They've earned it!-Kevo

Posted by: kevo on December 16, 2010 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

This needs to happen. Though I'm sure the GOP will scream and moan. Why? because they'll have to do their little hissy-fit dances right out in the open. Oh, and they'll have to actually do some work.

Can't have that, right?

Posted by: fourlegsgood on December 16, 2010 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Where are the 'gang of 14' when we need them to put a veneer of bipartisanship on our republican positions?

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on December 16, 2010 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

re kevo...

"The repugnance of a constant 60% threshold to do the business of the people, if continued, will become anathema to our upper Chamber!"

Not to worry, kevo. When the rethugs retake the majority in the Senate in 2013, the 60% threshold will disappear.


Posted by: SadOldVet on December 16, 2010 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Good point SadOldVet! I guess the only true way to understand the brand of Republican (of which I am one) is Through the Looking Glass! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on December 16, 2010 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

I will agree that the Senate has never worked this way. I can think of lots of Senators of both parties who would be appalled at the antics of Harry Reid trying to ram the monstrosity of the continuing resolution bill through in a lame duck session. Plus, of course, a questionable START treaty with no debate. What were they doing all year ?

Posted by: Mike K on December 16, 2010 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

It has been proven over the last 30 years that the rules of the Senate are a sham. The Greedy Wealthy can buy elections anytime they want. The government has been bought. They throw in a teaser like Obama once in a while but remain in control. It's time to admit it people. It's time to stop kneeling to the King.

Posted by: Cynic on December 16, 2010 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Good. I hope they get rid of asninine "anonymous holds," while they're at it.

And that's a notably poor and un-funny parody of Mike K.

Posted by: Gregory on December 16, 2010 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

I couldn't disagree more about reforming congressional procedures at this time - when Democrats are about to be in the position of having to fend off wave after wave of extreme right-wing legislation. I think we should give Republicans a strong dose of their own obstructionist medicine, at least until we have a strong majority again. It is startling that this reform issue is coming up now, instead of two years ago when it might have done some good.

Posted by: Winston on December 16, 2010 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

I will agree that the Senate has never worked this way. I can think of lots of Senators of both parties who would be appalled at the antics of Harry Reid trying to ram the monstrosity of the continuing resolution bill through in a lame duck session. Plus, of course, a questionable START treaty with no debate. What were they doing all year ?

Clearly this "Mike K", in addition to being fool, hasn't been paying attention.

"Monstrosity of the continuing resolution"?

"Questionable START treaty"?

"What were they doing all year"?

I'm left speechless. Perhaps when Mike has wiped the drool off his chin he can elaborate on these nonsensical phrases; surely they aren't meant to be factual assertions, right?

Posted by: Josef K on December 16, 2010 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

"What were they doing all year ?"

Bringing up bills that Republicans wouldn't allow a vote on so that they could criticize Dems for not getting anything done all year.

Where have you been all year?

Posted by: atlliberal on December 16, 2010 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

The reason Republicans have used the filibuster to such effectiveness is that their caucus is pretty much in ideological lockstep. There are simply no moderate or dissident Republican senators who are powerful enough to buck their leadership -- or their loony base. Democrats, though no longer burdened by the Solid South contingent, are still fractious enough that they really couldn't hold it together on the filibuster in the same way. As long as you have characters like Nelson, Landrieu, and Lieberman around who like to burnish their "independent" creds, Democrats are going to get rolled, whether they're in the minority or the majority.

Posted by: jonas on December 16, 2010 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

I can already bet that Lieberman will oppose filibuster reform.
Claire McCaskill seems like a lost cause.
That is two out of a 53 member caucus.

So they just need to keep Baucus, Manchin,
Conrad and Landrieu in lockstep to change the rules. No preening peacocks there - real workhorses.

I don't see it happening. I will be glad to be wrong.

Posted by: catclub on December 16, 2010 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

I'm glad to hear about Senate reform, however: is it worse late than never? After all, we don't know how long Democrats will continue to hold the body. OTOH, reforming the Senate will likely make Democrats look better and improve their chances, so, I think it's the right thing to do on balance.

Posted by: neil b on December 16, 2010 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

Almost two years too late and 2T$ short. The filibuster shou;ld have been removed in 3/09 via the nuclear option, if need be. You would now have had greater majorities in Senate and House. Want to bet that these bozos bungle it?? Progressive challengers are needed for BHO pdq-- and then some House and more Senate Dems.

The best that could happen is for a vaguely credible Progressive or Populist (e.g., Dean, Sanders, Webb, Wyden) need announce a challenge to BHO pdq. If centrist bloggers are correct, the many twits they attack in these commentors that are unhappy with BHO will represent a whining 3-5% of the electorate. If my guess is correct, such a candidate would get 20-30% support of the electorate (Dems & independents) within months of announcing. In that case an electoral fire is lit, and Obama is toast in 2012. A successful challenger will have as much chance of beating a Palinista as BHO would -- and a MUCH better chance of once again changing the composition of the congress toward Progressives than BHO ever would.

Posted by: gdb on December 16, 2010 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

"A successful challenger will have as much chance of beating a Palinista as BHO would -- and a MUCH better chance of once again changing the composition of the congress toward Progressives than BHO ever would."


Good luck.

Posted by: Lloyd on December 16, 2010 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

agreed. Good luck to BHO winning, much less being the agent of any change, other than a change to the right.

Posted by: gdb on December 16, 2010 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

"agreed. Good luck to BHO winning, much less being the agent of any change, other than a change to the right."

Shockingly, many expected otherwise...Many still do.

Posted by: Lloyd on December 16, 2010 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Not gonna happen. At least half a dozen Dems, and probably more, will shrink from any changes because they might make Republicans unhappy. As soon as the Repubs take over the Senate, in the first five minutes they will wipe out the filibuster and all other procedural delaying tactics.

Posted by: phillygirl on December 16, 2010 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

I've started re-watching 'ROME' and was struck by the narrator saying that Rome could rule many different peoples, but couldn't govern itself.

Republican behavior these last two years belies their claim to be conservative. They are radicals and should be called out for it daily. Democrats are the true conservatives today.

Posted by: Seould on December 16, 2010 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

Democrat behavior these last two years belies their claim to be liberal. They are not radical and should be called out for it daily. Democrats are the true conservatives who support Wall Street today."

There, fixed that for you.

Posted by: Mechanic on December 16, 2010 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

If filibuster reform means forcing the filibustering member to actually hold the floor and continue debating the issue, holding up other important business, I am in favor of it. As things stand now you get 41 members to vote no on cloture and the bill goes down to defeat. No muss. No fuss. No consequences. The Senate moves on to other matters. Works fine when the minority party is reasonable and uses the power sparingly, in only the most egregious cases. But when the minority party wants to simply obstruct the business of the Senate, they can do so without attracting any undue attention from most of the public and they suffer no consequences. But force Jim DeMint to stand up hour after hour explaining his actions and explaining why he is forcing the government of the US to a standstill, giving inane sound bite after inane sound bite - then the news media might just report that and the public might just start paying attention to what is being done to them.

Posted by: majun on December 16, 2010 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

I have a shocking idea, but it might actually work. And has actually worked in the past, if you want to get technical.

Instead of locking the minority party out of discussions, crafting bills they don't even get a chance to read before it goes to a vote - how about the majority party works WITH the minority to make a bill that can easily pass cloture?

I know, it's radical. It would require both sides to be willing to make compromises instead of drawing a line in the sand and refusing to move over that line, no matter what. It would require listening to both sides, so that half (or more) of the country doesn't feel like the legislation was shoved down their throats.

It would require our elected officials (of both parties) to stop acting like selfish children and actually do the right thing for the country.

Nah, that'd never work.

Posted by: Jennifer on December 16, 2010 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

whatever procedural vote the Senate chooses is what they will be stick with in 2012 and 2014.

This means that from 2011-2012. The Democratic Senate can do what it wants. But with a republican house, that is pretty much nothing.

In 2013-2014, the new REPUBLICAN Senate can do what it wants. You better hope Obama wins and the House flips in that case.
Why do I say Republican Senate?
22 democrats to 11 Republicans.

11 of the Democrats are in solidly Republican states.
The only *vulnerable* Republican is Scott brown. Who currently polls ahead of every single politician in Mass by at least 10 points.

In 2015-2016 ... this new Republican majority operating on your *streamlined rules* will go wild.
because that year ( 2014 ) is a mid-term, lame duck year.
And Dems from the class of 2008 will be running with 20-13 disadvantage.
And remember, those 13 survived the Obama tsunami.

Probable Senate breakdowns assuming everything goes the Democrats way ( economy improves )
2012 ... 51-52 Republicans, 47-48 Dems and 1 Ind who caucuses with Dems ( Sanders. Leiberman is gone ).
2014 54-57 Republicans, 42-45 Democrats, and Sanders.

Good news is in 2016 ... normalization would give the Dems about 3-5 seats back.

Now are you SURE you wanna play with making the Senate rules smoother, knowing you are counting on Obama to win re-election?

My advice?
Change the rules to do away with the filibuster altogether.
Set to take effect in 2021.

Why so long?
Because we have no idea who will be President, who will be in charge, etc.

Posted by: Chromehawk on December 16, 2010 at 6:50 PM | PERMALINK

gdb, apparently you are so p*ssed off at the President that you've lost your reasoning. You're fantasizing when you suggest that Sen. Webb could even be called "populist", let alone "progressive". If you're disappointed by Mr. Obama, Sen. Webb is NOT a good alternative; unless you're a masochist.
I cannot imagine any circumstances under which Gov. Dean would run. Sanders wouldn't get enough support. Wyden has health problems. That takes care of the four you listed.
I also find myself a bit confused as to your "guess" concerning the amount of support a challenger would garner. That "20-30%" you refer to is, going by the context of your sentence, the vote during the general election. That is NOT enough to elect a President. As it includes "independents", who can't vote in Democratic primaries, it's not even enough to prevent President Obama from being renominated.
Nor is "20-30% of Democrats and independents" necessarily enough to elect a third-party candidate. What it would be enough to do is elect Palin. Or Huckabee. Or Mittens.
If Mr. Obama wants the nomination in 2012, it's his. TR couldn't take the nomination away from WH Taft in 1912, but he could take enough votes away from Taft so that Wilson was elected. Perot is another example. His third-party candidacy ensured Clinton's victory, if only because most of those supporting Perot wouldn't have voted for Clinton. If they had voted at all, they would have voted for GHWB.
I do like your idea of a more progressive House and Senate, but you're going to be a very disappointed "progressive" if you expect a knight in shining armor to do all the hard work. At least that's the idea I got from your "...a MUCH better chance of once again changing the composition of congress towards Progressives...". Unless and until a majority of the Democratic Party, its organization, and those who vote for its' candidates become "progressives" we are going to remain a minority.
"And that's the way it is..."

Posted by: Doug on December 16, 2010 at 7:34 PM | PERMALINK

doug. The 20-30% is in fall or winter of 2011. That creats a whole new electoral dynamic for 2012.

Let's stop pretending. Barack Obama is a disaster as a crisis president. He has taken an economic collapse that was the result of Republican ideology and Republican policies, and made it the Democrats' fault. And the more that he is pummeled, the more he retreats and makes problems worse for any Dems but DINOs.

Unemployment measured broadly as it was in 1932 is around 18 percent. And unlike the 1930s, we don't have a strong Democratic president using Keynesian economics (at least in 1932-36) to dig our way out. Absent strong Progressive Democratic leadership, the Republicans going onto 2012 will easily (and with real justification) succeed in blaming the continuing crisis on Obama and the Democrats. Obama is rapidly becoming our Democratic Herbert Hoover who will produce Republican dominance of American politics for a generation.

The choices are stark:
Re-elect Obama to continue to undermine the economy, the Democratic Party, and the New Deal-Great Society legacy.

Pressure the administration to change course and back real progressive leaders and policies. Good luck with that and on compelling Obama to grow a spine.

Encourage and support a progressive candidate against Obama in the 2012 primary. At this point in time, most any vaguely credible challenger to BHO is likely to gain traction via press coverage and progressive anger. Impossible to gain traction?? Who would have predicted McCarthy would give any credible challenge to LBJ?

Were a challenge to occur, it might initially come from a populist politician deeply disturbed by events of the last two years. Or from the Progressive center left. The first challenger might well not make it to any nomination in 2012 because once ANY challenge is made and some blood is in the water, I suspect several other better candidates would come out. Why?? Because I suspect any challenger gets much press and near-immediate support of 20%-30% of Democrats--- and possibly many independents if polled against Republican Palinistas enabled by Obama's timidity and incoherent policies.

If an initial challenger stepped forward and Obama looked like he could really be beaten, my choice for a dark-horse who could catch on in a second wave of challengers would be Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Ridiculous?? Very few would have predicted and strongly supported Obama in 2006 [I'll count myself among one of his 2006 supporters now very disappointed].

Posted by: gdb on December 16, 2010 at 10:10 PM | PERMALINK

Wait a minute. Think of the incumbent presidents during the past half century who were eligible to run for re-election but declined run or lost: Johnson, Ford, Carter, Bush I. The common thread? Each had a challenge for his party's nomination.

Posted by: John Herbison on December 17, 2010 at 12:32 AM | PERMALINK

Chromehawk, the next Republican Senate will be operating under the majority-rules of their choice, no matter what the Democrats do this Jan 5.

So far, the inviolate rule has been "only Republican initiatives can pass with 51 votes, Democratic initiatives require 60 votes". That must change.

And beyond politics, the federal judiciary is the essential backstop of our republic. It is withering due to lack of Senate confirmations, and that must change.

Posted by: ElegantFowl on December 17, 2010 at 5:51 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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