WASHINGTON – The Senate approved changes to the filibuster Thursday night, adopting modest limits on the partisan obstruction that has ground action in the chamber to a near standstill.
But the deal reached between the Senate’s two leaders – Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. – fell far short of sweeping reforms sought by liberal senators and their allies. Left out was the requirement that senators who want to filibuster must remain on the Senate floor, talking the whole time, as Jimmy Stewart famously did in Frank Capra’s movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The Senate adopted two packages to alter a procedural rule increasingly employed to thwart legislation and White House nominees. One will allow bills to be more quickly brought up for debate. Another will limit discussion on certain White House nominations. The changes were overwhelmingly approved, 78-16 and 86-9, with dissent mainly from conservative Republicans.
“It’s not everything I wanted,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who led efforts to change the filibuster with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “This is a small step, but it’s a step that moves us in a better direction.”
The past few years have seen skyrocketing numbers of filibusters in what has become an escalating procedural arms race. In recent years, Republicans, seeking to block Democrats from pursuing their agendas, have relied heavily on the tactic. Democrats also employed the filibuster to obstruct then-President George W. Bush.
A filibuster ties the chamber in knots because it only comes to an end with a 60-vote supermajority, which has proven difficult to achieve with a closely divided Senate in this partisan era. Even if that supermajority is reached, procedures require at least three days for each filibuster to be overcome.
Democrats could have used their Senate majority to ram through a rules change at the start of the new Congress – or any time during this session. But they hesitated to provoke McConnell, a shrewd operator who would surely have retaliated.
“It just would have been thermonuclear war,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Reid who is now a Democratic strategist.
The agreement forged between Reid and McConnell should help move legislation more swiftly in the ponderous chamber.
Senators gave up their ability to filibuster – or hold endless debate – on the procedural step required to take up legislation on the Senate floor. In exchange, both sides were guaranteed the right to offer two amendments to the bill – a particularly important provision for the minority Republicans, who say they are forced to filibuster because Reid prevents them from trying to amend bills with provisions Democrats dislike.
Although senators can still filibuster the actual bill, eliminating their ability to block this procedural step will cut days off the process.