The winds of change that howled through the House Wednesday subsided into a gentle breeze Thursday in the Senate, hardly rustling the cobwebs on one of its oldest and most cherished traditions - the filibuster.
A day after the Republican House ripped up many of the old Democratic rules in an unprecedented 14-hour opening day, the Senate - also under a new GOP majority - voted 76 to 19 to quash a move by two Democrats to put new constraints on senators’ right of virtually unlimited debate.
As if to prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., led the fight for tradition, as he did through the years of Democratic control of the Senate.
“The filibuster has become a target for rebuke in this efficiency-obsessed age in which we live,” Byrd complained. “We have instant coffee, instant potatoes to mix, instant this and instant that. … “
But not an instant Senate.
Most Democrats and all 53 Republicans voted with Byrd, including the 11 freshmen elected in November on platforms pledging action to change the way Congress does business.
Republicans had hoped to mark their rite of passage to power in the Senate by enacting legislation, already approved by the House in its blitz of business Wednesday night, to force Congress to comply with workplace laws that it imposes on other employers.
But before they could bring up the compliance bill, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., raised hackles on both sides of the aisle with their proposal to scuttle the filibuster, long an instrument of personal as well as party power.
And shortly after the compliance bill was brought up, two other Democrats, Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, moved to expand it to include a ban on lawmakers accepting free meals, trips and other entertainment from lobbyists and a promise of prompt action on new lobbyist-registration rules.
Levin said the gift ban would help “put an end to business as usual in Washington,” which is what the Republicans have been promising. But Republicans say they don’t want it complicating passage of the compliance bill and say they will deal with it later.
The gift-ban and lobbyist-registration proposals died along with the compliance bill in the waning days of the last Congress, casualties of Republican filibusters or filibuster threats that Democrats said were aimed at depriving them of legislative victories before the elections.
Under current filibuster rules, opponents of a bill can talk it to death unless proponents can muster a 60-vote “super-majority” to impose debate limits called cloture and thus force the measure to final passage. Pointing to the election results, some Republicans have argued that people want filibusters to continue if they succeed in stopping unwanted legislation.
But Harkin and Lieberman described the filibuster as a legislative “dinosaur” that contributes to public rage over congressional gridlock; they proposed a gradual phase-down of the number of votes required for cloture so legislation could be approved by a simple majority of 51 votes on the fourth try.
Not even a majority of Democrats supported the proposal. Despite their complaints that Republicans used the filibuster to excess when they were in the minority, many Democrats want to keep it in their arsenal of weapons to keep the new Republican majority in check.