Sens. Schumer and McConnell go head-to-head in filibuster reform fight

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Thursday launched a high-profile fight in a committee hearing on changing the Senate's filibuster rules.

Schumer opened a scheduled hearing on the 200-year history of the legislative tactic by serving notice that he intends to strongly consider some kind of change to the chamber's rules in order to prevent legislation continuing to be blocked by small numbers of senators.

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"The filibuster used to be the exception to the rule. In today’s Senate, it’s becoming a straightjacket," Schumer said. "The truth is, both parties have had a love-hate relationship with the filibuster, depending on if you are in the majority or the minority at the time. But this is not healthy for the Senate as an institution."

McConnell was resistant, saying that Democrats are simply frustrated they cannot amass 60 votes to move legislation, and blaming Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for the situation by blocking Republicans from offering amendments.

“I submit that the effort to change the rules is not about democracy. It is not about doing what a majority of the American people want. It is about power,” McConnell said.

“It is about a political party — or a faction of a political party — that is frustrated that it cannot do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, precisely the way it wants to do it.

"This is not about reform," McConnell said. "It’s about a political party that cannot do what it wants, whatever it wants, in the way it wants to do it."

Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), also a senior member of the Rules Committee, submitted a statement for Thursday's hearing that fell somewhere in the middle between Schumer and McConnell, saying that reform could become reality. He also noted that the Senate's filibuster rules have been changed multiple times, such as in 1975, when the threshold for a successful cloture vote was lowered from 67 to 60 votes.

"I have long revered the rules and precedents of this body, but I have also championed reforms when I thought them necessary," Byrd said. "We should remain open to changes in the Senate rules, but not to the detriment of the institution's character or purpose."

Schumer said he plans a series of hearings into the issue, acknowledging "a large amount of frustration on both sides" and "very legitimate concerns" by the GOP. However, he noted that even small-scale legislation and nominations are being blocked unreasonably.

"It is my hope that these series of hearings can break through that," he said. "To just continue in this direction won't make any of us any more effective senators."

After Thursday’s hearing, Democratic leaders said they weren’t worried about filibuster reform possibly returning to haunt them this year or in 2012, when the party has several seats to defend and could return to minority status.

“We haven’t come to any conclusions,” said Schumer. “It’s obviously an issue of great concern in terms of how the Senate works and functions. The hearing was down the middle. We’re just trying to learn a lot about it first.”

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also said Democrats will be careful to preserve minority-party rights if any changes are made.

“There are ways to preserve basic rights of debate without succumbing to the extremes we’ve seen over the last few years,” he said. “I just think it’s been taken to the extreme and we have to bring the Senate back to its deliberative status where we actually accomplish things.”

Some GOP senators at Thursday’s hearing read aloud passages from Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) 2008 book, The Good Fight, in which he criticized Republicans for considering changing filibuster rules in 2005 and pursuing a so-called “nuclear option.”

Asked by The Hill if he regrets writing those comments given the current consideration for changing the rules, Reid said he did not.

“It’s a history book, and that was the facts,” he said. “I talked about the nuclear option. We’re not talking about using the nuclear option now. And they’re talking about violating even the filibuster rules.”

— This article was updated at 1:18 p.m.