Senate Democrats not backing down on filibuster reform despite expected losses

Despite expected losses this fall, Senate Democrats are not backing down on their commitment to filibuster reform.

In the wake of two failed procedural votes last week, some Democrats in the upper chamber say reform is necessary. However, obstacles remain in the form of Democratic centrists and election-year politics.

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Tuesday’s failed 53-46 vote for cloture on a defense authorization bill came after intense lobbying from liberal lobbyists for a provision it contained — a repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” provision” regarding gays in the military. But the bill also contained an immigration measure seen as key to boosting Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) reelection chances at home. Republicans said the extraneous measures were enough reason to kill the bill.

On Thursday, the Senate effectively killed the Disclose Act, a Democratic attempt to reverse what they saw as an adverse campaign finance reform decision by the Supreme Court. The legislation got 59 votes — one short of the necessary 60 to overcome a GOP block — putting in doubt any hopes for reform this Congress.

Many Democrats say the votes make it more, not less, likely that they will pursue filibuster reform in January, after the new Senate has been seated.

“It was already virtually certain that we would do something,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “The gridlock has been so frustrating already that the prospect of it getting worse only adds additional logic to try and help the filibuster problem … This is an unprecedented abuse of the filibuster that is completely out of conformity with the traditions of the Senate, and all we’re trying to do is to get it back to its traditional use … The question is about how we do it, not whether we do it.”

Last week, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that filibuster reform has been boosted as a top prerogative of Democratic leaders after the failed vote on his defense measure.

“These filibusters, on motions to proceed, cannot be allowed to succeed,” Levin said. “We cannot, to get our work done, allow filibusters to prevent us from getting to a bill. Those filibusters … have been used more than ever, by far, and they’ve resulted in slowing down legislation.”

Changing the filibuster rules will be an uphill climb — even though it would likely only require 51 votes in the new Congress. Several Democratic centrists oppose changing the chamber's rules. Furthermore, Republicans may capture control of the House and/or Senate this fall, rendering filibuster reform dead. Republicans have vowed not to pass such a measure.

Regardless, Democrats clearly need to convince more of their colleagues to back the effort if it has any chance to get 51 votes in 2011.

“I understand the frustration when this sort of thing happens. There is a lot of concern about getting filibuster reform through,” said centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “I don’t know and I certainly don’t want to disagree with [Levin]. But I think we’ve got to be very cautious and careful about filibuster reform, because depending on what form occurs, you could end up with a minority having no rights to very limited rights, and you could do it out of frustration. So I’m very cautious and careful about proceeding on this. And I’m on the Rules Committee.”

Yet most Democrats, especially relative newcomers to the chamber, say circumstances leave them no choice but to pursue a different strategic path in January.

“Some need to study it more than others,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). “But just leaving it as is — I think that’s a mistake. The question is, what steps do we take? But Carl Levin’s right, and you wouldn’t necessarily need to point to other votes, either. My understanding is that in January we wouldn’t need to get 67 votes.”

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been laying the groundwork for changing the filibuster rules, which is strongly supported by most House Democrats. Schumer has held a series of hearings on filibuster reform and plans to hold his last filibuster-related hearing before the election this week.


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