12/03/2010 08:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can the Senate Save Itself?

A serious conversation has begun about making it possible for the Senate to function as our Constitution envisaged -- as a part of a balanced structure, not a complete roadblock to preventing the Congress from playing its role as a legislative initiator. Led by veteran senator Tom Harkin and sophomore Tom Udall, a group of Democratic senators -- with one incoming Republican (Indiana's Dan Coats) joining them -- have begun calling for reform of the Senate's paralyzing rules, by which a tiny number of senators, sometimes just one, can prevent action.

A variety of proposals are on the table, including a creative one by Oregon senator Jeff Merkley that would require that if the minority wanted to filibuster, it would have to do so the old-fashioned way -- by remaining on the Senate floor to prevent action. It's far from clear how deep the reforms can be and still muster the necessary 51 votes to change the rules at the beginning of the next Congress -- but it is clear that this is the strongest effort we've had for reform in decades.

The danger posed to America by the present rules gets starker and starker. In the first week of the lame-duck Congressional session alone, we had South Carolina senator Jim DeMint threaten to filibuster a vital arms-control agreement with Russia, even if his fellow Republicans were satisfied that it enhances America's national security. Never before has the filibuster been used to block vital defense legislation. And earlier in the week all 42 current Senate Republicans signed a letter in which they explicitly used the threat of a filibuster to blackmail the Senate leadership into giving them their way by extending tax cuts for millionaires and blowing a huge hole in the federal treasury. Once again, no party has ever threatened to block all  legislation, however badly needed, to get their way on one bill -- and it is the current Senate rules that make such blackmail possible.

Of course back in February it became clear that the Republicans would filibuster almost everything this year in order to generate voter anger at a do-nothing Congress  -- and it appears to have paid off for them.

So the real issue now is whether the Democrats can recognize that the filibuster has now become a weapon of political terror, and that you cannot afford to compromise with political terrorists any more than you can with violent ones. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it, the current Senate rules block the will of the voters. If the voters have elected 51 senators who want to vote on a nuclear arms treaty, then a minority should not be able to prevent those senators from doing their job -- which is to vote.