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Klobuchar, Franken cheer potential filibuster reform

WASHINGTON — Senate leader Harry Reid has opened up to reforming the filibuster, something long supported by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

Majority Leader Harry Reid has said it's time to change the way the filibuster works.
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
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“I think now it’s pretty clear that you’ve got a majority of Democrats supporting a change,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein said. “They have to be careful that they do it right.”

Walter Mondale
REUTERS/Mike SegarWalter Mondale

“We’ve got to get some movement in the Congress,” Mondale said in an interview. “The rule leads to a paralysis. It’s really gotten to the point where deep reforms are needed.”

What reform could look like

Reid is reportedly looking at two main reforms to the rule: exempting the “motion to proceed” (the formal step the Senate takes before considering legislation) from the filibuster, and requiring senators looking to filibuster to actually hold the floor while doing so — in other words, a filibustering senator and his allies talk as long as they can, “Mr. Smith”-style, and once they have exhausted themselves, the Senate would be able to pass legislation with a simple majority vote.

The two proposals were prongs in a five-point filibuster reform package Klobuchar introduced last year with New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall. She’s been an especially strong proponent of the “talking filibuster” detailed above.

Such a filibuster isn’t required in the Senate today — if the majority isn’t able to get 60 votes to move forward on a bill, the minority has effectively blocked it without the need for an indefinite floor speech.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Jonathan ErnstSen. Amy Klobuchar

“If a member of Congress wants to stop a bill, they shouldn’t just be able to put in a filibuster and go home for the weekend,” she said though a spokesperson. “They should have to stand there and make their argument. Once they have to start explaining to America why they’re filibustering a bill, they’ll stop and we’ll be able to make progress on legislation that matters to Americans.”

Franken said he’s happy Reid has come around on changing the filibuster, though his preference is a more radical change to the system: Rather than requiring 60 votes to end debate, he wants to require 41 votes to keep it going.

Ornstein said that plan would work better than the “talking filibuster.” The idea for filibuster reform is to speed up the legislating process in the Senate, he said. A talking filibuster could still drag out debate, especially if there is a large group of minority senators so opposed to moving forward that they take revolving turns holding the floor, he said.

Rule change could be ‘nuclear’

Reid and Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell have sparred on the Senate floor this week over not just whether the filibuster rule should change, but the means by which it’s changed.

Democrats say they have the right to change the rules of the Senate by a simple majority vote at the beginning of the new Congress in January, as opposed to the two-thirds majority usually required. Supporters of this plan call it the “constitutional option,” because the Constitution appears to provide the Senate with the option of changing its rules by a simple majority vote. Others have a more colorful name for it: the “nuclear option,” because such a change would bring about chaotic disapproval from the minority party.

Republicans tried such a maneuver in 2005, when Democrats, then in the minority, were blocking George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. At the time, Reid and then-Sen. Barack Obama (who supports filibuster reform) spoke out against the move.

But the constitutional option has been used before to change the rules — Mondale and Democrats initially used such a maneuver in 1975 before senators compromised on the 60-vote rule. Franken said he’d prefer to find compromise before going that route, but indicated he was open to using it if all else fails.

Republicans say filibuster protects minority’s rights

Reid announced this week that he’d come around to pushing filibuster reform, likely because of the way Republicans have used it this session, and because so many Democrats in his caucus want to make a change, Ornstein said.

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Jason ReedSen. Al Franken

“He was reluctant to change the filibuster up until a year ago for the same reason that congressional leaders who preceded him were,” he said. “It’s a two-sided weapon. You can end up in the minority pretty soon yourself and might very well want to have it available to you.”

McConnell was quick to note this week that Democrats opposed changing the filibuster when they were in the minority.

But Democrats have framed the changes as minor tweaks meant to speed up the pace at which the Senate is run (invoking cloture is a days-long ordeal, and having to do it twice, once to consider legislation and once again to pass it, can significantly delay proceedings). But Republicans have cried foul, saying that the Senate’s need for more consensus — via the 60-vote threshold to invoke cloture — is one of the upper chamber’s most important roles in government.

The rules are there, “so that majorities can’t simply roll over those who disagree with them,” McConnell said in a floor speech Monday, his first of three on the subject this week. “And, just as importantly, so majority parties are forced to resolve the great issues of the moment in the middle, ensuring their stability and permanence.”

For what it’s worth, Mondale tends to agree with that. He has said the filibuster rule should remain on the book, but the burden to overturn it should be decreased to 55 votes, and filibustering senators should hold the floor if they want to prevent debate.

But he said McConnell was exaggerating the way a rule change would affect the relationship between the Senate’s minority and majority parties, next year and beyond. 

“The best place to be in the world, if you’re in the minority, is the United States Senate, and that will be true after the rule is changed,” he said.