WASHINGTON – After several years of partisan gridlock, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate appear headed for a fight over filibuster reform.
And the two senators representing Maine next year — veteran Republican Susan Collins and reform-minded newcomer Angus King — could find themselves on opposite sides of the issue.
Democrats are threatening to bypass Republicans and change fillibuster rules with a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds vote — the so-called “nuclear option.”
“I am open to rule changes,” Collins said. “But we should not be changing the rules by a simple, 51-vote majority.”
Minority parties in the Senate use filibusters — parliamentary delays — to slow or kill legislation. They can only be ended by 60 votes — a margin neither party can achieve without some cooperation from the other side.
Democrats say Republicans are abusing filibusters by resorting to them too frequently, and statistics show minority Republicans have increasingly used the tactic in recent years.
Since 2006, Senate leaders have been forced to try to override a filibuster 385 times — more than the total from 1917 to 1988, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The center is part of Fix the Senate Now, a coalition advocating for filibuster reform.
“I’m an optimist that some changes will be adopted early next year given that so many important pieces of legislation have been stopped or dammed up by unrelenting obstructionism,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a progressive group that is also part of Fix the Senate Now.
Democrats and groups such as the Alliance for Justice blame the logjam on Republicans, who have been the minority party since 2007. Republicans and conservative groups, meanwhile, say Democrats have forced their hand by limiting Republican amendments.
Both parties returned to Capitol Hill last month pledging more cooperation after an election where voters cited congressional inaction as one of their biggest frustrations with Washington. The rhetoric flared up again last week, however, as the two party leaders took to the Senate floor on consecutive days to bash each other over filibuster reform.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has discussed plans to curtail — but not eliminate — the Senate filibuster.
Reid has said he wants to only allow filibusters on final votes rather than on the procedural vote to begin debate, as is currently allowed. Reid also wants to require dissenters to keep a physical presence on the Senate floor through a “talking filibuster,” conjuring images of Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Republican leaders retorted by accusing Reid of forgetting his own past opposition to filibuster reform when Democrats were in the minority. But the fiercest Republican backlash was against Reid’s threat to use a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote to change the Senate rules.
By the end of the week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s line that Reid wanted to “break the rules to change the rules” was all over Republican emails, blog posts and op-eds.
There was some speculation that Reid invoked the nuclear option to force Republicans to the table. And some veteran Democrats were uneasy with the thought of bucking Senate tradition by changing the rules by majority vote.
But many incoming senators — including independent King — pledged to support filibuster reform during their campaigns, providing Reid with crucial momentum and votes.
King made the hyper-partisanship and political gridlock in Washington themes of his campaign as he pledged to work with both parties. During a Nov. 13 news conference announcing he would caucus with the Democrats, King reiterated his support for changing the filibuster but not doing away with it altogether.
“The filibuster and the rules of the Senate, in many ways, are designed to protect the interests of small states, so I’m not one who thinks it should be abolished altogether,” King said. “However, I think its use in recent years has been excessive.”
As for Reid’s proposals, King said last week he would support restricting filibusters to final votes as well as requiring senators to keep a physical presence on the floor to keep a filibuster alive. The two-term Maine governor was non-committal on using the nuclear option to achieve those reforms.
“I haven’t participated in the debate and heard all of the arguments,” King said. “But we have to do something to get Congress moving, and I certainly would consider it.”
Both Collins and Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who is retiring in January, have shown a willingness to break with their party by voting to end filibusters on certain issues. But both have also voted with other Republicans to continue blocking legislation on numerous occasions.
Collins, a moderate Republican, also indicated she was open to reforms to address abuses on both sides of the aisle.
“I have always been troubled by my caucus’s excessive use of the filibuster on the motion to proceed to the bill as opposed to using it once we are on a bill to block final passage,” Collins said in an interview. “Unfortunately, the reason there has been this overuse of the filibuster is directly in response to Democrats limiting the ability of Republicans to offer amendments.”
In response, Collins suggested during a Republican caucus meeting last week that McConnell and Reid work out a compromise: Republicans will stop filibustering the “motion to proceed” votes and, in return, Reid would agree not to limit germane amendments to bills.
But Collins warned Democrats against employing the nuclear option, noting that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled in the past that 67 votes are needed to change rules.
“If (Democrats) succeeded, that means rule changes henceforth can be made by just 51 votes,” Collins said. “That is a very troubling precedent.”
Snowe cited partisanship in Washington as the primary reason for ending her 34-year congressional career. Snowe has also indicated a willingness to consider filibuster reform and other changes to the Senate procedure in order to discourage political gridlock.
Snowe said “there is some merit” to requiring people to be on the floor to maintain a filibuster. But while she has expressed frustrations with overuse of the filibuster on procedural votes, she was more hesitant last week and urged congressional leaders to proceed cautiously.
“Really what’s required here is taking a pause, because any serious change in essence will, I think, suppress the minority voice and the minority rights,” Snowe said. She also said that any adjustments for the minority party should be balanced by adjustments for the majority in order to maintain balance.
“It’s not a good way to start a new Congress and a new Senate on the first day,” Snowe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: