Filibuster reform is short of needed votes

Senate Democrats do not have the votes to lower the 60-vote threshold to cut off filibusters.

The lack of support among a handful of Senate Democratic incumbents is a major blow to the effort to change the upper chamber’s rules.

ADVERTISEMENT
Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate are pushing for filibuster reform at the start of the new Congress next year.

 Five Senate Democrats have said they will not support a lowering of the 60-vote bar necessary to pass legislation.
 Another four lawmakers say they are wary about such a change and would be hesitant to support it.

 A 10th Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said he would support changing the rule on filibusters of motions to begin debate on legislation, but not necessarily the 60-vote threshold needed to bring up a final vote on bills.

Other senators who are not co-sponsors of filibuster reform did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Many Senate Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 favor changes to longstanding chamber rules, as do liberal activists who have grown increasingly frustrated over their party’s failure to pass legislation despite controlling 59 seats.

Reid told more than 2,000 liberal activists at a political conference held over the weekend in Las Vegas that he would work to change the filibuster rule.

“We’re going to have to change it,” Reid said, comparing the tactic to throwing a spitball, which Major League Baseball has banned.

Eliminating the filibuster would ease passage of much of the president’s agenda, ranging from climate change to immigration reform to “card-check” legislation.

Senior Democrats say Reid will not have the votes to change the rule at the beginning of next year.

“It won’t happen,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said she would “probably not” support an effort to lower the number of votes needed to cut off filibusters from 60 to 55 or lower.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) echoed Feinstein: “I think we should retain the same policies that we have instead of lowering it.
“I think it has been working,” he said.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he recognizes his colleagues are frustrated over the failure to pass measures such as the Disclose Act, campaign legislation that fell three votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster Tuesday.

 “I think as torturous as this place can be, the cloture rule and the filibuster is important to protect the rights of the minority,” he said. “My inclination is no.”

ADVERTISEMENT
 Sen. Jon Tester, a freshman Democrat from Montana, disagrees with some of his classmates from more liberal states.

 “I think the bigger problem is getting people to work together,” he said. “It’s been 60 for a long, long time. I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules.”

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is up for reelection in 2012, also said he would like the votes needed for cloture to remain the same.
“I’m not one who think it needs to be changed,” he said.

Republicans argue that it would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate to change what they call the standing rules of the body.

Democrats pushing filibuster reform argue the rules could be changed at the beginning of the 112th Congress through a ruling of the presiding chair that would then be ratified by a simple majority vote.

Democratic lawmakers say there are precedents since World War II when the Senate minority agreed to change the chamber’s rules after the majority threatened to use this procedure.  

Under such a scenario, the chamber’s presiding officer, presumably the Senate president, Vice President Joe Biden, would recognize a motion to adopt new rules for the 112th Congress. Republicans would object, but Biden would overrule them and his ruling would be sustained by a majority vote.

In February, Biden suggested he was in favor of filibuster reform: “From my perspective, having served here, having been elected seven times, I’ve never seen a time when it’s become standard operating procedure,” Biden said of the filibuster.

Filibuster reform is popular among Democrats running for seats this year.

Democratic candidates such as Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois, Jack Conway in Kentucky, Elaine Marshall in North Carolina, Lee Fisher in Ohio, Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.), Robin Carnahan in Missouri and Rep. Paul Hodes in New Hampshire have voiced support for lowering the 60-vote requirement for ending filibusters.

Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, has said he would favor Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) proposal to do away with the use of secret holds to stall executive branch and judicial nominees.

Barring a Democratic wave this fall — an unlikely scenario — Democrats will not have the votes needed to lower the filibuster threshold.

Democrats control 59 Senate seats but are expected to lose four to six in November. That means the loss of six Democratic votes on a proposal to change the rules would doom it.

At least 10 Senate Democrats oppose or are leaning against a proposal to overhaul the filibuster rule by lowering the number to end debate.

Unless Reid can persuade the 10 Senate Democrats who oppose or who are leaning no to support reform, he would not have the votes to reduce the magic number for passing legislation to 58, 55 or even 51 votes.

Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said they are wary of filibuster reform.

“As frustrating as it has been, I just think we have to be careful about it,” Landrieu said when asked about a rules change to respond to GOP obstruction.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he needed to think about it. Earlier this year, he warned that a change would need to be reviewed carefully.

The Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), will hold its fourth hearing on filibuster reform Wednesday.

A Senate Democratic aide noted that while Democrats may not have enough votes to lower the 60-vote requirement to cut off filibusters, other reforms could prove more popular.

McCaskill’s proposal to eliminate secret holds is thought to have more support. So does a plan to exempt motions to begin debate on legislation from filibusters.

Levin, for example, supports speeding up the pace of business instead of lowering the bar for passing controversial bills.

Another proposal would require the minority party to muster 41 votes to wage a filibuster. That would place more of a burden on the organizers of a blocking action who now merely need to deprive the majority of 60 votes. This allows the minority to filibuster without all its members attending the vote.

 Lieberman has previously supported a proposal sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that would lower the number of votes needed to cut off a filibuster.

Marshall Wittman, a spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), said Lieberman “supported this legislation when it was first introduced 15 years ago, and he will assess the various proposals for filibuster reform when the issue is again considered, which is not expected this year.”

Eden Stiffman contributed to this article.