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Momentum For Senate Filibuster Reform Builds

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Momentum is building to reform Senate rules that allow silent filibusters and force a 60-vote requirement for virtually any action, interviews with Democratic candidates and sitting senators indicate.

Democratic candidates said that they hear regularly from voters about abuse of the parliamentary tactic, which is likely to come up as the first vote new senators face in 2011. The supermajority requirement in the Senate has become such an obstacle to reform that it infiltrates policy discussions at every step. Last week at the Netroots Nation political conference, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) gathered environmental writers to discuss energy legislation; the first few questions were related to energy, the rest of the conversation was dominated by the filibuster.

"The use of the filibuster and the way it's led to backroom deals has created the impression in the heartland that the Senate is dysfunctional," said Jack Conway, a Democratic candidate facing Republican Rand Paul in Kentucky. "They don't understand why Washington can't address the issues people care about. People in Kentucky wanted people focused on jobs -- 14 months [of the health care debate] laid bare how broken the system was."

Conway was joined in his backing of filibuster reform by the three other Senate candidates who HuffPost interviewed for this story: Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, Elaine Marshall of North Carolina and Roxanne Conlin of Iowa. Sitting Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) also said they supported reform.

"It's not constitutional. It's not statutory. It's a rule," said Hodes, adding that he wasn't certain what the new rule should look like exactly, but the current ones needed to be reformed. "Everywhere I go, they say, 'Make 'em bring out the cots and the telephone books.' People are eager for real backbone and some toughness from Democrats."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a leader in the effort to reform the filibuster, said that support is strongest among new members and those running now. "They're all tuned into it," said Udall, elected in 2008, of the freshman and sophomore senators. "The core of support will by those: 2006, 2008, and whoever comes in in 2010." Merkley, Cardin and Franken have all been elected since 2006.

Merkley said that he's been canvassing his colleagues to determine how strong support is for reform. "I think we will be able to pull a couple dozen senators into the debate," he said. "Now is the time to heat up this conversation. Going into this election cycle with people running for office...it is important for people to remember that there was no supermajority requirement till 1917."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), during an address to the Netroots Nation conference, expressed his support for filibuster reform, comparing the situation to baseball's decision to ban the spitball and basketball's move to implement a shot clock. Neither rule had been needed before pitchers and basketball coaches abused the process, he said.

Reid has let the filibuster opponents know he's on their side. "Senator Reid has now said that he thinks that at the beginning of the next Congress there needs to be some kind of reform," said Udall. "There's a sense that we need to do something. Exactly what it is nobody quite knows yet."

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been holding Rules Committee hearings to study the issue of reforming the filibuster. What was recently considered impossible is now looking inevitable.

"There is a lot of talk around the country and senators are hearing it. I think there is more interest in it in the caucus. I don't know if it is an issue we will deal with this cycle, but...I think its time is coming," said J.B. Poersch, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Some of it is because, around the country, several of our candidates have adopted similar platforms and you have an opportunity to elect new Senators who have that on their agenda, too."

Udall said that the discussion has radically changed in the Senate. "The tone has changed. It used to be, when I first got here, people would say, 'Why are we doing this this way? This doesn't make any sense. And they would be referring to the procedure and the rules. And the saying always was, 'Oh, we're stuck with these rules. You can't change them. You need 67 votes. It's part of the filibuster. You just can't change it.' And people don't say that anymore," said Udall.

They don't say that anymore because it's not true and Udall, along with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has effectively made the case to his colleagues that it is entirely constitutional to change the rules.

The Constitution gives the vice president the power to break ties - not break 60-40 splits. Why would such a vote matter if the institution was not designed to be run by a majority?

Opponents of reform argue that the Senate is a continuing legislative body and that its rules can only be changed with 67 votes. But three vice presidents have previously ruled otherwise in the past - two Republicans and one Democrat.

If Vice President Joe Biden -- who has spoken out against abuse of the filibuster and has been studying ways to reform it -- were to rule on the first day of the next session that the Senate has the authority to write its own rules, Republicans would immediately move to object. Democrats would then move to table the objection, setting up the key vote. If 50 Democrats voted to table the objection, the Senate would then move to a vote on a new set of rules, which would be approved by a simple majority.

The simple act of holding the vote would have a therapeutic effect on the Senate even if it fails, said Udall, as it would inspire fear that abuse of the rules could lead to their destruction.

"People would then realize on both sides that if we abuse the rules, then they might change, because you do have an option of changing them. So I think there's a very healthy effect that flows from having the ability to adopt rules by a majority vote," he said.

Republicans in the Senate have performed more filibusters during the current congressional session than any minority in Senate history.