GOP Leadership Strikes Back At Filibuster Reform: It's A Democratic 'Power Grab'

01/04/2011 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders launched a coordinated attack against Democratic proposals to reform Senate rules Tuesday, making clear attempts to change the filibuster when Congress convenes for its first day Wednesday will be a highly partisan battle.

"For two years, Democrats in Congress have hoped their large majorities would make it easy for them to pass extremely partisan legislation," wrote Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a Washington Post op-ed. "Now that they've lost an election, they've decided to change the rules rather than change their behavior. They should resist the impulse. Democrats should reflect on what they have done to alienate voters, not double down on the approach that got them here."

McConnell specifically goes after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for "setting records for the number of times he has blocked Republicans from having any input on bills, cut off our right to debate and bypassed the committee process in order to write bills behind closed doors."

"Getting things done for middle-class Americans shouldn't be a partisan issue," responded Reid spokesman Jon Summers. "It's a sign of how extreme Republicans have become that they actually want to make Washington work less efficiently in order to advance their own political interests."

A group of pro-reform Democrats including Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) have put forward a package of proposals that would, they say, return the Senate to majority-rule and stop the minority from blocking all legislative action. Udall said that Democrats have been coalescing around three proposals: 1) No longer allowing senators to filibuster the motion to proceed, and instead allowing a set amount of time for debate; 2) ending secret holds; and 3) re-establishing the "talking filibuster." They hope these changes will return the body to majority rule and block a stubborn minority from holding up action.

In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the number three on the Republican leadership team, accused Democrats of trying to "cut off the right of the people they elected to make their voices heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate" -- a move that will make voters who turned out in November "pretty disappointed." From his prepared remarks:

When the United States Senate convenes tomorrow, some have threatened to try to change the rules so it would be easier to do with every piece of legislation what they did with the health care bill: ram it through on a partisan vote, with little debate, amendment, or committee consideration, and without listening to minority voices.

The brazenness of this proposed action is that Democrats are proposing to use the very tactics that in the past almost every Democratic leader has denounced, including President Obama and Vice President Biden, who has said that it is "a naked power grab" and destructive of the Senate as a protector of minority rights.

The Democratic proposal would allow the Senate to change its rules with only 51 votes, ending the historical practice of allowing any senator at any time to offer any amendment until sixty senators decide it is time to end debate.

He proposed four reasons why senators should reject rules changes: 1) They "dimish[] the rights of the minority," 2) "diluting the right to debate and vote on amendments deprives the nation of a valuable forum for achieving consensus on difficult issues," 3) the "brazen power grab by Democrats this year will surely guarantee a similar action by Republicans in two years if Republicans gain control of the Senate as many believe is likely to happen" and 4) any legislation pushed through the Senate under the new rules would "undoubtedly die in the Republican-controlled House during the next two years."

According to his prepared remarks, Alexander planned to play a video clip of the classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," in which Mr. Smith stands on the floor of Congress and gives a speech during a filibuster: "Wild horses aren't going to drag me off this floor until those people have heard everything I've got to say, even if it takes all winter."

This sort of scene, however, rarely happens now on the Senate floor. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gave an impressive performance with a filibuster speech last month, but he was an exception. In fact, what normally happens is that senators announce their intent to filibuster legislation -- but never have to stand on the floor and actually give a filibuster speech. Re-establishing the "talking filibuster" would do that.

Alexander does, however, endorse the bipartisan idea of ending the practice of secret holds. In fact, 66 senators have also signed a letter denouncing the practice. On the slow pace of approving nominees, Alexander faults President Obama for taking an "inordinately long time to vet his nominees," although he acknowledges that an "excessive number" require Senate confirmation.

Pro-reform Democrats have asserted that the Senate has the ability to change its rules on the first day of a new session with jut 51 votes. They planned to file a brief with Vice President Biden on the issue before Wednesday. But the rules reform fight may now be delayed until late January in the hope of crystallizing final support for a package of fixes.

A November poll by the Democratic pollster PPP found that 64 percent of voters favor filibuster reform.


Harkin spokeswoman Bergen Kenny offered this statement:

Senator Alexander may have forgotten the words of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, disgusted by filibusters of judicial nominees, who said: "This filibuster is nothing less than a formula for tyranny by the minority." Both parties at times have expressed frustration over abuse of this procedure at one time or another and both parties have an interest in reform of the filibuster. "The reform advocated by Senator Harkin is not about one party or one agenda gaining an unfair advantage. And at a time when abuse of the filibuster is rampant, Americans realize that the Senate must operate more fairly, effectively and democratically to meet the challenges of our time.

From Merkley's office:

Senator Merkley absolutely agrees with Senator Alexander that that thoughtful deliberation should be the essential character of the Senate. But, unfortunately, that deliberation is not happening now.

The Senate last changed the filibuster rules in 1975. In the Congressional session spanning 1973 to 1974, there had been 44 cloture motions filed. At the end of the last congress, there were 136. Each of these cloture votes requires a week of the Senate's time. When one does the math, it's clear that this is no way for the Senate to function.

And the effects go well beyond legislation. At the end of 2010, forty-two executive branch nominations hadn't been able to have a vote. And additional thirty-eight judicial nominees languished. The inability of the Senate to consider even routine business hurts the other branches of government.

Today, a filibuster is a far cry from impassioned debate on the floor on the issues. Instead a single senator can block a bill from consideration, go home to dinner and require that week-long cloture vote without ever having to explain their views on the floor or even publicly identify themselves.

Senator Merkley and others have proposed principles to improve the functioning of the Senate and enhance debate. That includes requiring "talking filibusters" where members actually have to voice their views on the floor. And it includes the ability of both the minority and majority a fair opportunity to offer amendments because Senator Merkley agrees that senators should have the chance to propose changes to bills.

Senator Merkley invites Senator Alexander and all his Republican colleagues to join the effort to make the Senate work again.

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