WASHINGTON — Those who hold the Senate in low esteem can get a sympathetic ear from some of the chamber's newer members. These lawmakers also are fed up with the Senate's ways and would like to change them.
"A graveyard of good ideas" is how freshman Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico sees the Senate. "Out of whack with the way the rest of the world is," says another freshman, Michael Bennet, D-Colo. "Just defies common sense" is the impression of Claire McCaskill, a first-term Democrat from Missouri, in describing the filibuster-plagued institution.
New members, especially those from the majority party eager to fulfill their election promises, typically complain about the slow pace of the Senate. But with partisanship pushing the Senate toward petrification, some newcomers are seeking fundamental changes in the way the Senate operates. Getting their more senior colleagues to go along will not be easy.
Bennet, the Denver school superintendent appointed to his post after former Sen. Ken Salazar became interior secretary, has put forth an elaborate plan to make the Senate more workable. It includes eliminating the practice known as a "hold" in which a single senator can secretly prevent action on legislation or nominees; ending the ability to filibuster motions to bring a bill up for debate; banning earmarks for private, for-profit companies; imposing a lifetime ban on members becoming lobbyists; and restricting congressional pay raises.
"It was immediately apparent to me that the system was broken," said Bennet, who won a hotly contested primary and faces a tough election this fall.
McCaskill said that while she had great respect for some Senate traditions, secret holds were "kind of where I decided to plant the flag."
She and other newer Democrats frequently have spoken on the Senate floor to condemn holds. She authored a letter, signed by 68 senators, including 11 Republicans, in which members pledged not to place such holds.
McCaskill also has worked with a Republican, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, to bring more transparency to bills passed by "unanimous consent," meaning they are approved without debate or roll call votes.
Udall has what might be the simplest but most radical proposal. He says that when the new session opens next January, he will offer a motion that the Senate adopt rules by a simple majority. That would make it vastly easier for the majority to modify filibuster rules with proposals.
Bennet, for example, would modify the filibuster rules by raising the threshold level for blocking a bill to 45 votes in the 100-member Senate. Bill supporters now have to get 60 votes to break a filibuster, meaning the minority party can block it with just 41 votes if everyone votes.
"What we have now is minority abuse," Udall said. "We have turned over to the minority the ability to run the institution and to block whatever they want to block."
Udall argues that the Constitution gives the Senate the authority to make its own rules, but since 1959 the Senate has stipulated that rules continue from one Congress to the next. In 1975, the Senate changed the requirement for ending a filibuster from a two-thirds vote to 60 votes. But it consciously kept the two-thirds majority threshold for changing other rules.
Udall calls his approach the constitutional option. Five years ago, Democrats called it by the more ominous name of the "nuclear option" when then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., threatened to push through a simple majority rule for overcoming minority Democrats' opposition to President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.
In the end, nothing happened. Udall's idea has been put forward several times in the past, Senate historian Don Ritchie said. But "the Senate has always gotten up to the cliff and decided to step back."
"Some of the people advocating these changes might be very glad they didn't succeed if they end up in the minority," he said.
The minority, of course, is always reluctant to give up any authority to influence the process.
"I submit that the effort to change the rules is not about democracy," Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said at a recent hearing on the history of the filibuster. "It is not about doing what a majority of the American people want. It is about power."
Supporters of the 60-vote supermajority say it helped prevent Democrats from attaching a government-run public option – an idea unpopular with many Americans – to the health care law. And growing national sentiment that Congress should quit adding to federal deficits was reflected when Democrats needing Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold were forced to cut future food stamp benefits and an energy program to pay for a $26 billion jobs bill this month.
There have been only two instances of major changes in rules concerning filibusters: in 1917, when the Senate agreed to a two-thirds supermajority for cutting off debate, and in 1975, when the requirement was reduced to 60 votes.
Both times, the changes grew out of considerable agitation for reform, in 1917 during World War I and in 1975 after years of civil rights advocates being stymied by filibusters, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University.