Dem senators seek to kill filibuster

Two Senate Democrats on Thursday formally launched their quixotic effort to kill the filibuster.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) re-introduced a bill Harkin first unveiled in 1995 that would set a gradually lowering threshold to shut off debate on legislation, starting at 60 votes and lowering to 51 over six days.

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Such a change to Senate rules would require 67 votes — an impossible threshold to reach, given the chamber’s make-up and divisiveness. While Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has backed the measure, Harkin and Shaheen said they have no Republican co-sponsors. They are unlikely to get any.

Harkin noted that he introduced the bill first when Democrats were in a minority, and that Republicans should realize that eventually they will regain the majority.

Harkin and Shaheen said there was only one filibuster per Congress in the entire 1950s while it was used 139 times in the 110th Congress.  They also said the word filibuster is not mentioned in the Constitution.

“The aim of the filibuster has been turned completely upside down,” Harkin said.

Vice President Joe Biden told reporters last week that his staff is “scrubbing” the use and history of the filibuster, but he pointedly stopped short of endorsing filibuster reform.

Harkin on Thursday said he has not coordinated his efforts with Biden.

The Iowa senator directed his staff research the history of the filibuster. In the 19th century, Harkin said, his staff’s research showed the filibuster was developed by Senate leaders to allow senators time to travel to Washington and time to allow state legislators and governors to be informed about pending legislation. Senators at that time were appointed by their states.

“Obviously both of those reasons are relevant now,” Harkin said. “People can get here easily, and communication is instantaneous.”

Shaheen pointed out that several times in recent months, Republicans have insisted on a 60-vote threshold for legislation, only to approve the underlying bill overwhelmingly.

A recent vote to extend unemployment benefits was delayed for weeks, for example, only to be passed on a 98-0 vote, while a vote to provide more consumer protection against credit card companies passed 92-2 after weeks of gridlock.

“The issue in those cases wasn’t disagreement on the issue, it was purely and simply an attempt to obstruct,” Shaheen said.

The Senate has changed its filibuster rules before, most recently in 1975 by lowering the threshold from 67 to the current 60. Currently, Congress continues to squabble over healthcare reform, and in the wake of last month’s special Senate election in Massachusetts, some liberal activists and senators have added their voices to the call for filibuster reform.

Rep. Jim McDermott has even introduced a House resolution urging the Senate to lower the filibuster threshold, saying it “has begun to erode the integrity of our democratic process.”

Both Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Barack Obama are on record opposing the idea. Reid, in his his 2008 book “The Good Fight,” recalled the “nuclear option” debate in the Senate in 2005, when Republicans then controlled the chamber and considered lowering the filibuster threshold during a fight over judicial nominees. Reid compared the idea to “opening Pandora’s Box” in terms of changing Senate tradition.

On Thursday, Reid said he was familiar with Harkin's bill, adding, "It takes 67 votes, and that, kind of, answers the question."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who endorsed the nuclear option, recently told The Washington Post that he now thinks that effort was "a really dumb idea."

Obama referenced the nuclear option debate in a 2005 speech, saying that such a change would result in “the fighting and the bitterness and gridlock will only get worse.”

However, Obama has said he is "very frustrated" with the Senate.

In a Dec. 23, 2009 interview on PBS, Obama said, "If you look historically back in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s - even when there was sharp political disagreements, when the Democrats were in control for example and Ronald Reagan was president - you didn't see even routine items subject to the 60-vote rule.

"So I think that if this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us."

Asked if he will press for a legislative fix, Obama said, "It is a matter of Senate rules. Look, the fact of the matter is, is that if used prudently, then I don't think it's harmful for our democracy. It's not being used prudently right now."