Robert Byrd, whose 50-plus years in the Senate give weight to his thoughts on the institution, charged Wednesday that the minority party has been abusing the filibuster. Byrd, in testimony before the rules committee, suggested changes to the rules that would strike a balance between allowing the majority to function and preserving minority rights.
Also on hand were Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Senate veteran who last led the fight to change the rules -- reducing the necessary votes from 67 to 60 in the mid-1970s. The panel reflects the party's long-running commitment to changing the parliamentary rules, something Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid first voiced support for back in March.
Durbin claimed the minority party has been using filibusters as part of a broader strategy to move forward its political agenda. "Unfortunately the rules complement that strategy," he said before the committee chaired by Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "We've got to find a reasonable way to respect the minority but to stop what I think is clearly a destined gridlock for this great institution."
Byrd (D-W.Va.) said he supported banning the use of the filibuster on a motion to proceed to a matter -- as the GOP did unsuccessfully with regard to Wall Street reform -- or limiting debate to a reasonable time on such motions, with senators retaining the right to unlimited debate on the matter once before the Senate. But he cautioned that the committee must guard against efforts to change Senate rules by a simple majority.
"Our Founding Fathers intended the Senate to be a continuing body that allows for open and unlimited debate and the protection of minority rights," said Byrd. "Senators have understood this since the Senate first convened."
Byrd invoked his legacy in the Senate as he reprimanded the minority party for threatening to filibuster almost every matter up for Senate consideration, saying it amounted to a breach of senatorial duty. "A true filibuster is a fight, not a threat or a bluff. For most of the Senate's history, senators motivated to extend debate had to hold the floor as long as they were physically able," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the GOP bluff in April when he announced that the Senate would stay in session around-the-clock until Republicans consented to debate the Wall Street bill. Byrd noted pointedly that when the cots had been sent for, the threat of filibuster was withdrawn.
"This once highly respected institution has become overwhelmingly consumed by a fixation with money and media," Byrd said. "Gone are the days when Senators Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson, and Speaker Sam Rayburn gathered routinely for working weekends and couldn't wait to get back to their chambers on Monday morning. Now every Senator spends hours every day, throughout the year and every year, raising funds for re-election and appearing before cameras and microphones. Now the Senate often works three-day weeks, with frequent and extended recess periods, so senators can rush home to fundraisers scheduled months in advance."
Throughout his speech he never once referred to the minority party as "Republicans." Having experienced the workings of the Senate for half a century, he has spent his share of time fully exercising minority rights.
"The Senate has been the last fortress of minority rights and freedom of speech in this republic for more than two centuries," said Byrd. "I pray that senators will pause and reflect before ignoring that history and tradition in favor of the political priority of the moment."