03/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Keep The Filibuster, Say Dem Senators

It's been fourteen years since Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House. A few weeks after inauguration, some folks are out of patience with the limits on their power.

They want to abolish the filibuster, which has let Senate Republicans hold up legislation that a majority of Congress supports by threatening unending debate. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, and there are only 58 Democrats in the Senate.

Needing sixty votes in the Senate to move legislation forward is not only an anachronism, critics argue, but it gets in the way of progressive change. It creates sloppy centrist legislation at the whim of senators like Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME). The trimmed-down stimulus is their exhibit A.

But those progressive calls will have a hard time being heard on Capitol Hill. "I understand how they feel out there, because when I came I felt the same way," says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Elected in 1992, she quickly introduced an amendment with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) to abolish the filibuster. Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, so she figured it was time to move the progressive agenda forward.

In the very next election, they were wiped out by the 1994 Republican Revolution. Boxer says she was glad her effort failed.

"I wish we could do it for now, but having gone through a time when we were in the deep, deep minority and Newt Gingrich was repealing every law over there, were it not for the filibuster, we would have lost everything. This country would not look the way it looks today," she says. "We would have lost every environmental law on the books. We would have lost every financial regulation on the books. We'd have lost every consumer protection on the books."

Liberal rage at the filibuster isn't new, says congressional historian Julian Zelizer. "From about the '40s to the '70s filibuster reform was a key issue to liberals," he says. "The filibuster was a symbol of Civil Rights opposition."

Before 1917, a single Senator could hold up legislation by filibustering. Sen. Robert La Follette, a progressive Republican from Wisconsin, and his allies took full advantage of those rules to block legislation to aid the British during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson urged the Senate to invoke cloture; a rule was made that by a vote of two-thirds, the Senate could cut off debate and move to passage.

Liberals wanted to go further. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations made filibuster reform one of their top three priorities, along with passing an anti-lynching law and reforming committee structures to reduce the power of Old Bull chairmen who stood in the way.

"When I first came here it was 67, so it's been reduced once already and that took a long time," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who favors keeping the number at 60. In 1975, Democrats successfully reduced the number needed to end a filibuster from two-thirds.

What had once been used only in extreme circumstances became a part of standard Senate practice. Democrats charge that the GOP made excessive use of the filibuster last session, but Zelizer says it's been common practice to need 60 votes to move anything since the late '70s.

"Before 1975 the filibuster was reserved for pretty dramatic battles," says Zelizer. "After 1975, it becomes normalized. It becomes a regular part of partisan warfare."

Senators, with their six-year terms, are long-term thinkers and recognize they may one day end up in the minority again, which help explains why the majority party doesn't force the minority to actually carry out the filibusters by reading from the phone book or whatever else is available. "Both parties kind of like this system secretly," says Zelizer.

Judging from the reaction of Democrats spoken to for this article, the reluctance to squash the filibuster isn't all that secret. "It's something I really haven't thought about a lot," says Vermont's Bernie Sanders, one of the most liberal senators. And Nelson, who would lose some centrist leverage with the loss of the filibuster, said he hadn't reviewed proposals to eliminate the filibuster and so wouldn't comment.

With so many senators vested in the system, accomplishing the task would be difficult. "For one thing, I don't know that we can get rid of it right now," says Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), "so I'd be more in favor of seeing what [parliamentary] things we can do to move legislation more quickly."

For Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), it would look like a brazen power grab. "That's a really bad idea. That's a really bad idea," she says. "Because what would it look like to the American people that we're in charge in the House, the Senate and the White House for the first time in a significant period of time and immediately want to start changing the rules?"

Boxer says she has a better plan. "What we have to do is get 60 Democrats," she says.