Senate Dem freshmen want party to back 'talking filibuster'

Most of the new class of Senate Democratic freshmen say filibuster reform should require senators to actually hold the floor and debate if they want to block legislation.

Seven new Democrats voiced support Thursday for instituting the so-called talking filibuster rule as the core component of reform.

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Of the nine newest senators to join the Senate Democratic Conference, only Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) declined to explicitly support the talking filibuster.

Overhauling the rules has boiled down to an intergenerational debate within the Senate Democratic caucus.

Old bulls such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) favor more modest reform and have recruited Republicans to press for a negotiated solution.

Junior Democrats, including Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.), say unless lawmakers are required to sustain live floor debates, the chamber will remain gridlocked most of the time. They favor using the nuclear option, which they call the “constitutional option,” to effect this change through a simple majority vote. But they need 51 of the 55 members of the Senate Democratic Conference to back them.

“The heart of the matter is the talking filibuster,” Udall said.

Levin gained momentum late last month when he and seven colleagues introduced a bipartisan proposal to reform Senate procedures.

His plan would allow a senator to require 60 votes to set up final passage of a bill by raising an objection. It would, however, make it easier for the majority leader to take up new business by restricting filibusters on motions to proceed.

It would also make it easier for the leader to bring legislation to conference negotiations with the House and move lower-level executive- and judicial-branch nominees.

Levin has enlisted the support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as well as Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

Udall and Merkley on Thursday introduced their own resolution to reform the Senate. The biggest difference is that their plan would force senators who filibuster to actually speak on the floor and allow the majority leader to call for a simple majority vote on the pending business once the debate stops.

Their proposal would also eliminate filibusters on motions to proceed, reduce debate time on executive- and judicial-branch nominees — except for Supreme Court nominees — and bar filibusters on motions to go to conference.

They received reinforcements Thursday when nine new Democratic senators took the oath of office. Most of them agree with Udall and Merkley that reform should require lawmakers seeking to block action to argue for their reasons in front of C-SPAN cameras.

“Preserving the rights of the minority is important, but I think it’s too easy, if you don’t actually have to do a 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'-style filibuster, it’s too easy to be abused,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) after taking the oath of office to represent New Mexico. “I think the filibuster should be preserved but it should be a talking filibuster where you actually have to go to the floor and preserve the floor.”

“I feel like talking filibuster is what enables your colleagues and the American public to know whether you’re interposing some reason for delay or you’re just interested in delay for delay’s sake,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), before participating in a swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Biden.

Senate Democrats have filed over 380 motions to end filibusters since capturing the majority in 2006, although Republicans argue many of these were filed before giving them a chance to discuss possible compromises to move forward. 

The Levin-McCain proposal urges party leaders and senior senators managing floor business not to honor objections from lawmakers who are not present on the floor — but junior Democrats who favor reform say this does not go far enough.

“The McCain-Levin proposal does nothing to take on the secret silent filibuster that is haunting this body,” Merkley told reporters Thursday.

He argues that Democratic and Republican leaders tried to establish a gentlemen’s agreement to reduce obstruction at the start of the 112th Congress in early 2011 but it did not work. He says a rule change is necessary.

Merkley and Udall have talked to many of the Senate Democratic freshmen since the election to shore up their support.

“The talking filibuster is still very much on the table. Ask the new ones coming in what they feel about it,” Udall said.

“I’ve been speaking with them. I am very supportive of reform and feel like this talking filibuster is exactly what the rule was designed to do historically,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who replaced Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who did not sign onto a petition to “fix the broken Senate” before Election Day, also voiced support for the talking filibuster.

“One of the things I’ve always said back home in Indiana — if you want to get credit for something, you ought to earn it,” he said. “If you want to get up and declare filibuster, you ought to have to do it.

“You have to earn it,” he said.

Sen. Angus King (Maine), an Independent who will caucus with the Democrats, said it would be “preferable” for filibuster reform to include the talking filibuster. He said it is also important to allow the minority party the ability to offer and vote on amendments, even if they might put members of the majority in political discomfort.

“At the very least, if you’re going to try to filibuster a bill, you should stand on the floor and show to the American public what you’re for and what you’re against,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has taken former Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I) seat. “I want the strongest filibuster reform. I’m going to support the efforts of Sens. Merkley and Udall.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she, too, wants filibuster reform to require senators to hold the floor to block bills.

Hirono and Heitkamp were the least explicit. 

“She broadly supports the goal of filibuster reform but is reviewing the proposals on the table,” said a spokesman for Hirono.

Heitkamp said, “I’m not sure yet. I haven’t had a chance to get a complete brief.”