Klobuchar, Franken cheer potential filibuster reform

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Majority Leader Harry Reid has said it's time to change the way the filibuster works.

“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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 11/29/2012 - 09:44 am.

    It is a bout time.

    Voting on an issue is one thing but casually preventing votes is entirely different. This rule needs to change.

  2. Submitted by Robert Owen on 11/29/2012 - 10:58 am.

    One’s views of the filibuster depend on

    It all depends which party is in power. And I don’t mean Democrats or Republicans. I mean your own party or the other party. Were Republicans in control of the Senate right now Minnesota’s two senators wouldn’t want to “reform” anything about the filibuster.

    Note how editorial boards at the Strib or NYT have evolving opinions about the legitimacy of filibusters. It coincides with which political party is in power.

    • Submitted by David Mensing on 11/29/2012 - 02:44 pm.

      I don’t entirely agree

      Unfortunately, Robert, times have changed in the US Senate. When filibusters were rarely used and business got done, protecting the minority with the procedure was a good idea. Now, the filibuster is not rarely used, it is invoked whenever the minority disagrees with anything. Almost any legislation or nomination opposed by 41 Senators is vetoed. If both sides want to act like children and thoughtlessly oppose what the other side proposes, the rules shouldn’t be there to give the minority veto power.

      I fully expect that some time in the next decade Republicans will take control of the Senate. When they do, they should be allowed to do the people’s business, just as now when Democrats should be allowed to proceed–passing bills and appointing judges etc.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/29/2012 - 01:19 pm.

    When has it helped?

    I used to agree with Mr. McConnell when the Republicans held all three branches of government. But when I try to remember the times the modern Democratic party ever took a hard line where it actually used the filibuster to stop some of the things that the Republicans did that I really disagreed with? Other than Robert Bork, how many right wing judges have been blocked from being appointed to the bench? How many terrible treaties have been passed, like NAFTA? The filibuster rule and its threat have only been used to block progressive change or operate as an excuse for doing nothing or simply compromising with your own principles. Time to modify if not eliminate it.

    • Submitted by David Mensing on 11/29/2012 - 02:48 pm.


      Bork was not ultimately filibustered. He was voted down 58-42 if I recall correctly. If it wasn’t the opening salvo in the politicalization of appointing Supreme Court Justices, it was a major amplification.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/29/2012 - 05:33 pm.

        A Little Earlier

        The politicization started with the appointment of Bork, an ideologue who had been campaigning for a SCOTUS seat for years.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/30/2012 - 09:37 am.

        Amplification of politicalization

        As I recall Robert Bork was rejected because his scholarly legal writings showed him to be on the conservative fringe of legal thinking. I wouldn’t call that “poitcalization.” A great resume shouldn’t excuse extreme opinions.

        Bork wanted the Senate to note the existence of his writings, because they showed how scholarly and smart he was, but also said they were just theory, so don’t mind the content.

  4. Submitted by David LaPorte on 11/29/2012 - 01:25 pm.

    Filibuster, but with a higher threshold

    I support the filibuster, since it makes it harder for the majority party to steamroll those in the minority. But I also think that it’s much to easy to implement. If the threshold was higher, it would only be used on really important issues.

    I like Franken’s requirement of an affirmative vote to continue the filibuster. If the minority party can’t get 41 senators into the chamber to vote to extend the filibuster, then it must not be all that important to them.

    I also like the “talking filibuster”. If you have a case to make, you should be allowed as much time as you need to make it. If you need to resort to reading from the phone book, then you’re obviously out of arguments. I have faith in a politician’s ability to talk AT LENGTH about whatever topic they wish, but it should address the issue at hand, not just be a way to create gridlock.

    Neither of these points would eliminate the filibuster, but the filibuster would be an active process rather than passive aggressive.

  5. Submitted by Geo. Greene on 11/29/2012 - 01:26 pm.

    Long past time.

    When I was a sprat a filibuster was so rare it made the news. It was intended to let a minor viewpoint have it’s day to try to change the majority’s opinion.

    Now it’s effectively changed the Constitution. The Constitution says 51 votes but the filibuster -when it’s used routinely as a partisan tool to prevent anything the other side wants- now makes it 60 votes. This childish behavior by the GOP -I want my way and if I can’t have it you can’t have yours- is responsible fort the gridlock and the economic mess.

    I’m surprised it hasn’t ever been litigated as unconstitutional.

  6. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 11/29/2012 - 04:03 pm.

    Both sides

    use all sorts of blocking techniques. If we all do not admit that, we are either not paying attention or we are an ideologue. I recently saw a clip of Harry Reid denouncing a change to Senate rules as an arrogant abuse of power. Now the shoe is on the other foot, so…

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