Filibuster reform bill headed for Senate floor, faces uphill battle

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) intends in the next few weeks to introduce legislation that would take away the minority’s power to filibuster legislation.

Harkin has wanted to change the filibuster for years, but his move would come in the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s dramatic victory in Massachusetts. Brown’s victory cost Democrats their 60th vote in the Senate, and may have dealt a death blow to their hopes to move a massive healthcare overhaul. It could also limit President Barack Obama’s ability to move other pieces of his agenda forward.

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Harkin believes senators in recent years have abused the procedural move.

Harkin’s bill would still allow senators to delay legislation, but ultimately would give the majority the power to move past a filibuster with a simple majority vote.

His staff said the bill would be introduced sometime before the Senate’s current work period ends on Feb. 13.

Democratic leadership aides say Harkin’s bill is unlikely to succeed and that the idea hasn’t been seriously considered in light of Brown’s victory.

“In light of the fact that it takes 67 votes to change the Senate rules, it does not look likely that a rule change would happen anytime soon,” said a senior aide.

The aide noted the rancorous debate in 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate and considered changing filibuster rules during a fight over judicial nominees. The so-called “nuclear option” was eventually dismissed.

The filibuster has been a long-running controversy in the Senate. In the 20th century, Southern senators used it to block civil rights legislation supported by a majority of the Senate.

More recently, Democrats used the filibuster when they were in the minority, while Republicans criticized the procedural rule. Democrats have increasingly criticized it in this Congress, though Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are on record supporting its existence.

Harkin argues the filibuster is being used too commonly in today’s Congress.

In a Jan. 4 letter to his colleagues, Harkin noted that filibusters were used just once per Congress in the 1950s, compared to 139 times in the last Congress.

“At issue is a fundamental principle basic to our democracy — rule of the majority as a legislative body,” Harkin wrote. “Elections should have consequences. Yet the Senate's current rules allow for a minority as small as one to make elections meaningless.”

Speaking to The Hill, Harkin said use of the filibuster has ground the legislative process to a halt.

“While there are reasons to slow bills down and get the public aware of what's happening, there's no excuse for having a few people just stop everything with a filibuster,” he said.

Several liberal activists as well as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) this week have called for filibuster reform to make it easier for legislation to pass.

In the House, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) this week introduced a resolution urging the Senate to lower the filibuster threshold, adding in a statement that the legislative tactic “has begun to erode the integrity of our Democratic process.”

Under Harkin's bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), 60 votes would still be necessary to cut off debate on an initial procedural motion. If senators failed to reach 60 votes, a second vote would be possible two days later that would require only 57 votes to cut off debate. If that also failed, a third vote two days after that would require 54 votes to end debate. A fourth vote after two more days would require just 51 votes.

Reid shot down the option in his 2008 book The Good Fight. Recalling the “nuclear option” debate in 2005, Reid compared lowering the filibuster threshold to “opening Pandora’s Box.”

“It was just a matter of time before a Senate leader who couldn’t get his way on something moved to eliminate the filibuster for regular business,” Reid wrote. “And that, simply put, would be the end of the United States Senate … A filibuster is the minority’s way of not allowing the majority to shut off debate, and without robust debate, the Senate is crippled.”

In a Jan. 6 press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also said the idea of filibuster reform isn’t being actively considered. “I have not heard discussion here about support for changing those rules,” Gibbs said.

Even Obama, referencing the 2005 debate, is on record opposing the idea during a speech he gave as a senator that year.

“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 and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse,” Obama said in the April 2005 speech in Washington.

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