Ongoing Obstruction in Senate Rekindles Calls for Filibuster Reform

April 25, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Last year, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor to bemoan his Republican colleagues’ ongoing use of the filibuster to block or greatly delay the president’s nominations to executive branch agencies, the federal bench, and to defeat consideration of legislation.

Reid then praised some of the senators who have been pushing for filibuster reform, such as Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The plan, in part, would force senators to work harder to sustain a filibuster. Merkley calls it a “talking filibuster.” In a press release, Merkley explains how his proposed changes would blunt the use of the filibuster. (Sen. Merkley is one of the featured speakers at the 2013 ACS National Convention in June.)

As it stands now Republicans have crafted a new norm of requiring a supermajority to end debate and allow up-or-down votes on legislation and nominations. The compromise gun bill was killed because of this new norm, though some wobbly pundits suggested the president was at fault. Indeed the late Bob Edgar blasted the use of the filibuster as essentially shutting the place down and his group lodged a lawsuit to force reform of the procedural tool.

At the start of the 113th Congress, Merkley and other senators urged a simple majority vote to change the Senate’s rules on the filibuster. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said “a revolution has occurred in the Senate in recent years. Never before was it accepted that a 60 vote threshold was required for everything. This did not occur through Constitutional Amendment or through a great public debate. Rather, because of the abuse of the filibuster, the minority party – the party the American people did not want to govern – has assumed for itself absolute and virtually unchecked veto power over all legislation, any executive branch nominee, no matter how insignificant the position, and over all judges, no matter how uncontroversial.” 

But a vote to reform the filibuster did not occur. Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) successfully entered into an agreement with Reid that was trumpeted as reforming the filibuster. In reality it was a deal that included very little reform. A promise was made that the Republican obstructionists would go easier on some of the president’s judicial nominations – those made to the federal district courts. Following that deal, McConnell boasted about killing filibuster reform. His re-election team, as TPM reported, sent out a fundraising appeal declaring McConnell “saved the ability of Republicans to filibuster any bill at 60 votes.”

Since the deal Republicans have blocked President Obama’s nomination of Caitlin Halligan to a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, threatened to scuttle his nominations to the National Labor Relations Board and undermine the operation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The lame filibuster deal and the ongoing obstruction by Republican senators have spurred a coalition of public interest groups to pressure the Senate to change its ways.

The Huffington Post reported that the coalition called Fix the Senate Now, which includes “more than 70 progressive and labor” groups, sent a letter to Reid and McConnell outlining the ongoing abuse of the filibuster and calling for reform.

The April 24 letter states, in part, that the “abuse of the filibuster to undermine policies that the minority cannot defeat through normal legislative channels represents a subversion of core democratic principles and Senate traditions, and should not continue.”

It continues, “The Founders gave to the Senate the responsibility to provide ‘advice and consent’ to the president’s nominees by majority vote. No one doubts that the Senate should take this vital task seriously and carefully consider nominations to important positions within our government. But they never envisioned that the Senate would abuse its advice and consent role by employing rules and procedures that would deliberately undermine the full and efficient functioning of the American government or deny a vote to those who have been appointed to positions that Congress itself established. The willful misuse of the Senate’s rules must end.”