During the extended debate over unemployment benefits on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) called for an end to the filibuster rule that for months has kept the Senate in a state of maddening gridlock. Discontent over the arcane Senate procedure swelled in recent months as a bill to reauthorize unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless languished in the Senate and 2.5 million Americans watched their benefits lapse.
"It's time we not only get the country moving, it's time we get the Senate moving," said Mikulski in a speech on the House floor. "We have to first look at reform for ourselves, and I want everyone here to know, I'm on the side and definitely part of the reform movement in this institution to get rid of out-of-date procedures that belong to another century whose only job is not to slow us down so that we... don't do anything at all."
First elected to the Senate in 1986, Mikulski is one of the most senior members of the Democratic caucus and her 24 years in the Senate lend weight to her thoughts on the institution.
Some senators have long grumbled that the minority party has been abusing the filibuster, using it to stall the legislative progress and move forward its own political agendas. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid first voiced support for ending the filibuster back in March, and this May, Robert Byrd, the late historian of the Senate, charged that the minority party has been abusing the filibuster. Also on hand at Byrd's testimony before the rules committee 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.
Byrd, Mondale, and Durbin suggested changes to the law that would strike a balance between allowing the majority to function and preserving minority rights. Their position coupled with the discontent of Reid, chairman of the Democratic caucus, reflects the mounting pressure to reform the parliamentary rules. The 74-year-old Mikulski is just the most recent Senate veteran to speak out on the issue.
"Unemployment insurance is a social contract and it is a social compact. It's a treaty with the American people. We don't violate treaties," Mikulski said. "But no, not our Senate. We had to dilly-dally around for month after month with the obstructionist tactics of the other side using out-of-date procedures of this institution that belong in another century and another economy."
Reforming the way the Senate does business is a priority for Mikulski, who has signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill that would close debate with less than 60 votes (S. Res. 416). Mikulski also signed on to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill's letter calling for an end to secret holds -- an individual senator's ability to anonymously delay nominees or legislation, and continues speaking out on the need for change.
"Our failure to act has brought untold harm to people," Mikulski added. "When we left at the Fourth of July, I couldn't believe that we walked out to carry the flag and say, 'Let's hear it for the red, white and blue,' and we were going to leave Americans without an income that they themselves had paid into to be able to get."
On Tuesday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called unemployment extensions "long overdue," and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) bemoaned the fact that it takes a supermajority to help families afford the bare necessities even as unemployment is rising.
"We forget that private-sector insurers pay into it and so do the workers," Mikulski said. "It's insurance. When I went around Maryland during the break, people who had jobs and even those who were well-off said, 'Why can't you pass unemployment insurance?' If you can't do that, you can't do anything. And they were absolutely right."
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), when questioned by NPR on the difficulties in passing the bill after the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, said: "It's really odd that a death of a 92-year-old should have such an impact. It just shows how dysfunctional these rules are in the Senate where you need 60. I have this fear that one day there's going to be a fire in the Senate and there are only going to be 57 senators there and they'll all die because they won't have 60 votes to allow themselves to leave the building."
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