December 3, 2012

Fight looms in Senate over reform of filibuster

Maine's Susan Collins and independent newcomer Angus King could be on opposite sides of the issue.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - After several years of partisan gridlock, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate appear headed for a fight over filibuster reform.

click image to enlarge

Independent Sen.-elect Angus King meets with Republican Sen. Susan Collins on Capitol Hill last month. The two senators representing Maine next year could find themselves on opposite sides of filibuster reform.

The Associated Press

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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