By Ramsey Cox
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday announced that Senate Democrats will vote to limit GOP use of the filibuster in the next Congress.
The move by Reid is narrow in scope and would not prevent Republicans from filibustering legislation, but was immediately criticized by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who said it would marginalize the Senate minority.
Reid proposed that the minority not be allowed to filibuster a motion to proceed to legislation. He would also require senators engaging in a filibuster to come to the Senate floor to do so.
Reid did not say how he would proceed toward a rule change, though most observers believe the only way he could garner the votes to change the filibuster would be through the use of the “constitutional” option, in which Senate rules can be changed at the beginning of a Congress under a majority vote.
The method is also called the “nuclear” option, a nickname that shows how controversial it is.
Without using that option, Reid, who saw Democrats grow their majority to 55 seats in the last election, would need 67 votes to change the Senate rules.
Reid cast his move as a minor change that would make the Senate work more efficiently.
“The Senate is broken and the only ones that disagree are Republicans and Mitch McConnell,” Reid said. “These plaintive cries that we’re getting rid of the filibuster are lies.
“I and no one on the Democratic side has proposed getting rid of the filibuster,” Reid said on the Senate floor Monday, “just that we do away with the filibuster on the motion to proceed.”
Democrats have been frustrated by GOP efforts to filibuster procedural votes, and Reid had come under pressure from a number of senators in their first or second terms to gut the filibuster.
McConnell said it was wrong to change the filibuster, and wrong to do so with a majority vote.
“What this small group of primarily Senate sophomores is now proposing is that when the Senate gavels in at the beginning of the new Congress a bare majority of senators can disregard the rule that says changes to the Senate rules can only be approved on the same broad bipartisan basis we reserve for approving treaties and overriding presidential vetoes: a supermajority-plus,” McConnell said Monday.
“What’s being proposed now would undermine the very purpose of the Senate as the one place in our system where minority views and opinions have always been respected and heard and, in most cases, incorporated into law.”
Both parties have toyed with using the “nuclear” option; Republicans considered it when they held a majority to prevent Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations by President George W. Bush.
The debate has seen Reid and McConnell shift positions as they have moved from the majority to the minority and vice versa.
McConnell on Monday buttressed his argument by saying that both Reid and President Obama have previously opposed changing the filibuster rule.
“On Dec. 8, 2006, the majority leader made a public pledge to fight all efforts to change rules protecting the minority once he became majority leader,” McConnell said of Reid. “It’s a pledge he repeated during another proposed rules change two years ago.”
McConnell quoted Reid as having said that “the Senate was not established to be efficient” and “sometimes the rules get in the way of efficiency” but that “the Senate was established to make sure that minorities are protected.”
The GOP leader also quoted from a 2005 speech by Obama, who was then a Democratic senator.
“‘The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse,’ ” McConnell recalled Obama saying.
Reid said McConnell had supported changing the filibuster rule when he was in the majority.
“It’s ironic that the Republican leader says he’s opposed to changing the rules … seven years ago, when he was majority leader, he wanted to change rules,” Reid said.
He added that Senate rules have previously been changed on the filibuster, which once took 67 votes to cut off. Sixty votes are now required to end a filibuster.
Reid declined to press for a rule change at the beginning of the last Congress, a move he has since said was a mistake.
Earlier this year, when Reid first suggested that he’d attempt to change Senate rules for the next Congress, he said his position changed because Republicans have abused the current filibuster rules to stop legislation.
Reid blamed Republican abuse of filibusters for the dysfunction of the body, saying it took days for the Senate to even begin a debate on a bill. McConnell said the problem isn’t the rules, it’s who is leading the body.
“I think the Senate has been disastrously run over the last two years, not because of the rules but because of the operation,” McConnell said. “This is a big issue about the future of this country and the operation of this body.”