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Dream Act Supporters: Bill-Killing Filibuster Was Unconstitutional

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DREAM ACT FILIBUSTER
A demonstrator rallies for the Dream Act in San Jose, Calif., in 2011. | AP

WASHINGTON -- Would-be Dream Act beneficiaries aren't just angry that the bill failed in the Senate in 2010: Some also are joining a lawsuit seeking a court to rule that the cloture vote that killed it was unconstitutional.

Three undocumented young people were named as plaintiffs, along with four Democratic House members, in a lawsuit filed on Monday by nonpartisan lobbying group Common Cause. The suit goes after the Senate's filibuster rule, which forces a bill to overcome a supermajority (of 60 votes) to end debate, while passage of a measure requires only 50 votes.

The Dream Act, which would let some undocumented immigrants gain legal status if they meet a number of requirements, passed the 50-vote threshold in December 2010 with bipartisan support. But it fell short by five votes of the 60 needed to end debate.

"I was really frustrated when I saw the Dream Act; it was basically cheated justice," Caesar Vargas, an undocumented plaintiff on the lawsuit, said at a press conference on Tuesday. "I say that the Dream Act won by five votes. It was the unconstitutional filibuster that caused it to not proceed."

Legislative passage of the Democratic-sponsored Dream Act is nearly impossible this year, filibuster rule or not. The bill is opposed by a majority of Republicans in both chambers. The dynamics of the Senate have not changed enough to help it; the Senate would still fall short of 60 votes (as it did in 2010).

Still, the lawsuit is a new approach to advocacy for the bill and adds to a larger effort on behalf of filibuster reform that would leave the chamber less vulnerable to manipulation by the minority party.

"The filibuster had evolved into a monster, repeatedly rearing its ugly head, and it became the chamber's standard operating procedure," Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said at the press conference.

The lawsuit contends that the policy, set by the Senate itself, is unconstitutional because it is "inconsistent with the principle of majority rule."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), frustrated by Republicans' blocking of a vote, said last week that he would support reform of the filibuster rule, flipping from his previous position that the policy should remain unchanged. An aide for Reid told The Huffington Post that he supports changing the filibuster procedure in the early days of the next Congress while the Senate is setting its rules. A 2011 effort by lawmakers to reform Senate rules failed.

Retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a moderate, said on Tuesday that she would be open to the idea of changing the filibuster rule as a way to ease partisan gridlock.

The suit's lead attorney, Emmet J. Bondurant, also a member of Common Cause, said on Tuesday that ending the current filibuster rule would be important regardless of whether the Senate comes under Republican control.

"This is a nonpartisan issue ... It will be just as wrong if it is used by a new minority party," he said at the press conference.

Those behind the lawsuit said they hope the Senate will reform itself but feel the lawsuit is needed to bring about the change if the chamber doesn't revamp its procedures.

"We believe that this lawsuit can stand on its own two feet, but if the Senate wants to be courageous next year and change their rules, let it be so," said Common Cause's president, Bob Edgar, a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives.

Celso Mireles, a plaintiff in the suit who would be affected by the Dream Act's passage, said it is important to remember how people can be directly affected by a filibuster.

"The filibuster is more than just a parliamentary abstract procedure," he said. "It affects real lives."

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