Will Democrats Gut the Filibuster?

The Senate: It actually functioned in the past week! But that was only after election pressure on moderate Republicans died down. Endless Republican obstruction will continue next year, more painfully. Will Democrats dare to change the "sacrosanct" Senate rules?

Senate Republicans broke the filibuster record in this Congress, forcing 60-vote super majorities on every significant piece of legislation, dozens of executive nominations, and really anything that would make the Democratic party or Barack Obama happy in the slightest. This was Mitch McConnell's plan from the beginning. He managed to keep the entire Senate Republican caucus together, united in opposition, on filibuster-breaking votes. Senators like Susan Collins, Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe would occasionally side with Democrats, but only after weeks or months of extracting major concessions on bills that McConnell didn't want his party to be blamed for killing (stimulus package, financial reform). The only reason so many bills — the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" repeal, New START Treaty, food safety act, child nutrition act, defense authorization act, 9/11 responders' health act — passed in the lame duck is that 7 to 10 Republicans who'd voted "no" for pure purely political reasons wanted to get some "yes" votes in on popular bills once the caucus pressure was off.

But the obstruction will return and be even more grueling next year. House Republicans will produce aggressive budget bills with deep, Tea Party-approved cuts. They'll attempt to de-fund implementation of the health care reform law. These will go to the Senate, where the 47 Republicans will link arms and filibuster any Democratic counter-proposal until it's a nice, Republican bill. We're almost guaranteed a government shutdown in the next few months. The Senate only works when its members work in good faith to build consensus on important issues. But as the minority party realized in this Congress, you can also require 60-vote super majorities on every vote for political reasons, watch the other side go insane, and ultimately get what you want.

Senate Democrats don't want to operate under these rules for another two years.

All Democratic senators returning next year have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging him to consider action to change long-sacrosanct filibuster rules.

The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, to weaken the minority's ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.

Democrats don't want eliminate the filibuster completely, requiring a simple majority for every vote. Democrats could be the minority party in two years, after all! They'll want to preserve some some mechanism for stopping President Palin's War on Mexico and Hippies. So the proposals they're considering are more like tweaks:

Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it.

So you could still filibuster every bill if you wanted to, but it would require more than one senator raising his or her arm in the air, or simply submitting an anonymous request, to initiate. You'd have to mobilize your entire filibustering block of 40+ Senators, and they'd have to stay on the floor for many hours. How many of these spoiled, elderly queens are willing to do that, day in and day out? Yeesh! It would need to be kind of important.

Rule changes require two-thirds majorities, unless the majority does it at the very beginning of the new Congress:

Adding to the momentum for change, say proponents, is a push by Udall to seek a simple majority vote on changing Senate rules at the start of the session, rather than a two-thirds majority, that is gaining steam. Such a move could come at the start of next Congress, shortly after the Senate returns on January 5th.

There is going to be so much whining if Democrats try this, which probably means they should do it.

[Image via AP]