JONATHAN CHAIT JANUARY 24, 2011
Last month, every member of the Senate Democratic caucus signed a letter signalling support for reforms that would end anonymous holds and force the minority to actually mount a continuous debate if it wanted to block a bill, rather than require a supermajority vote even to begin a debate:
All Democratic senators returning next year have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging him to consider action to change long-sacrosanct filibuster rules.
The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, to weaken the minority’s ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.
Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it.
What happened next? Let's see. First, Republican critics attacked the reforms for doing away with the supermajority requirement even though (sadly) they did no such thing. Then the few conservatives who actually understood what the reforms would do (which, again, was not -- NOT, Senator Alexander -- prevent the minority from obstructing legislation) admitted they actually made a lot of sense.
And, now, of course, the denouement -- Senate Democrats fold like a cheap suit:
To the dismay of a younger crop of Democrats and some outside liberal activists, there is no chance that rules surrounding the filibuster will be challenged, senior aides on both sides of the aisle say, because party leaders want to protect the right of the Senate's minority party to sometimes force a supermajority of 60 votes to approve legislation.
Instead, rank-and-file lawmakers will receive pitches from Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who have been negotiating more limited changes, such as with "secret holds" that allow an anonymous senator to slow legislation. In addition, some modifications could be made to the way confirmations are handled for agency nominees who do not have direct roles in policymaking.
I was pretty surprised when Senate democrats agreed to even very minor filibuster reform. They really do seem to believe that the post-1975 rule changes, which transformed the filibsuter from a rare tool of strong protest into a routine supermajority requirement, is the bedrock of American democracy.
Will this ever change? One way to change it will be for Democratic activists to start demanding support for filibuster reform as a condition of the nominating process. That will take a long time to work. Probably what will happen first is that Republicans will gain control of the House, Senate, and White House but lack a 60-vote supermajority and just change the rule themselves.