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We Can't Tolerate 'Silent Filibuster' on Guns

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The initial shock has faded, but nearly four months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun violence and school safety are still on the nation's radar screen.

The Council of State Governments reports that more than 40 states are considering or have passed new gun laws. It is nearly impossible to read a newspaper or watch a television news broadcast without encountering the gun debate. A Google News search for the phrase "gun control" yields 21.4 million responses for the past month alone. The word "Newtown" produces 21.9 million hits and the phrase "school shooting" nearly 41,000.

But in the U.S. Senate, once hailed as the world's foremost deliberative body, it seems increasingly likely that there'll be no substantive debate -- much less action -- on gun legislation this year.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, and Rand Paul of Kentucky have prepared an ambush. When the Senate reconvenes next week, they plan to exploit its filibuster rule to keep gun legislation from coming to the floor

It's up to a Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, to call them out.

Reid should tell the Republicans to clear their throats (and empty their bladders) for a long fight. He should use his power to make them talk, and talk, and talk -- without breaks, through days and nights and even weeks -- if they're really determined to deny Newtown's victims and the nation a vote on expanded background checks for gun purchasers and a crackdown on interstate gun trafficking.

As they say in the gangster movies -- or used to anyway -- it's time to go to the mattresses.

Cruz, Lee and Paul notified Reid last week that when the Senate reconvenes they'll oppose his "motion to proceed" -- a proposal to begin formal debate -- on gun legislation. Rather than let a bill come to the floor, where it and amendments to strengthen or weaken it could be debated and voted on, they hope to kill it with a filibuster on the motion to proceed.

The Republicans' tactic is what legislators call a "silent filibuster." Here's how it works: Before attempting to bring a bill to the floor, Reid typically polls senators to determine if at least 60 support it. With 60 votes, the filibuster rule allows him to cut off discussion on the motion to proceed and get to the substance of the bill; with fewer than 60, he generally waves a surrender flag and moves to other legislation. Thus, by threatening an extended debate, a bill's opponents effectively block any debate.

Sen. Reid and his colleagues had a chance a few weeks back to end or at least limit filibusters on motions to proceed. I wish they'd done that, and more. Common Cause, the organization I'm privileged to lead, is pursuing a lawsuit to have the entire filibuster rule declared unconstitutional; we'd love to have a few senators join us as plaintiffs.

But as long as the rule and its 60-vote threshold to begin debate remains in place, it's easy to see why Reid (and majority leaders in both parties who preceded him) generally accepts silent filibusters. They think it doesn't make much sense to spend days talking about whether you're going to debate a bill when you know in advance you won't have to votes needed to do so. I disagree, especially when the issue is as compelling as gun violence.

Particularly after Newtown, with 90 percent of Americans in support of stronger background checks and smaller but still impressive majorities favoring other gun control measures, senators who want to block debate should be required to explain themselves and keep explaining themselves until they're physically unable to continue or they persuade a majority to join them. My personal bet is that the longer they talk, the more Americans are going to grasp the inherent unfairness of the 60-vote rule and the way it allows a minority to obstruct majority rule. And when that happens, some senators may just begin to reassess their positions.

It has been more than 20 years since Congress had a serious discussion about guns and gun violence. In the past five years alone, there have been at least 25 mass shootings, including the massacres In Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood, Blacksburg and most recently, Newtown.

C'mon Sen. Reid. Lock and load. Let's disarm the filibusterers and honor majority rule.