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Reform the filibuster

The time to reform the Senate’s filibuster rule couldn’t be better. 

The filibuster requires the majority party in the Senate to muster 60 votes to pass most legislation and confirm executive-branch appointees. While this tool was once reserved for particularly controversial battles, this outgoing Senate’s GOP used the filibuster to engage in an unprecedented level of obstructionism. 

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Senate Republicans used the tool to block popular legislation like the Disclose Act, stymied even though it had massive popular support and 59 votes in the Senate. They used the filibuster to harass the administration — filibustering administration appointees, even uncontroversial ones. They used the filibuster to ride out the clock on judicial nominees, trying to prevent Democrats from filling as many seats as possible. One judge, Jane Stranch, was filibustered 400 days, only to be approved 71-21. Another, Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, was blocked for months before being approved 99-0. Another, Judge Denny Chin, was confirmed 98-0 after being filibustered for some time.

Indeed, Republicans just engaged in the most brazen obstructionism in American history. They will have engaged in over 132 cloture votes by the end of this term. In the previous term, minority Republicans called 112 cloture votes. Before that, the previous high in any term was 58.

What was once a sporadic tool for extraordinary circumstances is now part of the GOP’s everyday arsenal to break government and ensure it cannot function.

Now lest I be accused of partisanship, I was for the “nuclear option” when a Republican-led Senate threatened to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. It would’ve been a smart move, even if it would’ve made it easier for the GOP and President George W. Bush to appoint more noxious judges to the federal courts. But elections should have consequences.

Which brings us to the new Congress. The time to reform or eliminate the filibuster altogether is ripe. 

First of all, the GOP will soon hold the House. Thus, partisan Republicans shouldn’t fear an unobstructed Democratic majority. The two chambers of Congress will check each other. Of course, that might not assuage GOP fears on administration and judicial appointments, but this was the same GOP that claimed not so long ago that such obstructionism was unconscionable. 

Furthermore, Senate Republicans will enjoy an extremely favorable map in 2012. Democrats are defending 23 seats, while the GOP must defend only 10. And while most of the GOP’s seats are safely tucked away in red states, at least 13 Democratic incumbents hold seats in red or competitive states. In other words, the GOP likely will take control of the Senate after the 2012 elections.

And it’s not just the Senate in play. President Obama certainly doesn’t look like a lock for reelection. His approval ratings are stable but mediocre at best, while Democrats got trounced in 2010 in key battleground states that Obama won, like Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida. Unless Republicans gift Democrats Sarah Palin, the electoral math will be much tighter. 

That’s all to say, the benefits of getting rid of the filibuster don’t flow in a single direction. Chambers change hands quickly. Presidents come and go. While Republicans might be temporarily inconvenienced with tougher filibuster rules this coming Congress, chances are they will benefit from a defanged minority in 2013. 

Ultimately, the filibuster is undemocratic. Voters should have a clear idea of whom to blame when government doesn’t deliver for them. Elections must matter.

Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos and author of American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.