As frustration with a stalled Senate grows on Capitol Hill—punctuated by moderate Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh's surprise announcement last week that he would not be running for re-election because of his deep disappointment with the body—Democrats are stepping up calls for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to invite Republicans to make good on their threats to block upcoming legislation by forcing them to actually filibuster the bills.
"It's not only good policy but good politics to call them out now," says Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who cochairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "The American people need to see who really is the roadblock here." He, like many House Democrats, believes that letting the GOP filibuster rather than retreating in the face of filibuster threats would send a powerful political message. Up until now, "we've been playing into the hands of people who don't want to get anything done," says Grijalva.
But others caution that the days of the old-fashioned filibuster—reading from the phone book, say, to hold the floor if the other party lacked 60 votes to end debate—are gone. If forced into it, the GOP would be more likely to fall back on dry procedural tactics that do not lend themselves to good political theater.
Republicans point out, too, that the use of the filibuster, or the mere threat of it, is not a GOP invention. It was the Democratic Party that accelerated its use dramatically after Republicans took control of Congress during President Bill Clinton's first term. "This isn't a new phenomenon, and it's not all about the Republicans. The Democrats used it when they were in the majority, multiple times," says Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat. "I understand the rules of filibuster, but I also understand that this is an unprecedented use of filibuster, so many more than have ever been done in history. I don't think there have ever been more bills awaiting action."
Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California–Los Angeles, recently found that 70 percent of bills today face filibuster, compared with 8 percent of legislation in the 1960s. There are dozens of bills passed by the House languishing in the Senate, Cardoza adds. "While I have more love for some than others, I know there are at least a few gems in there. And I believe the Constitution says 51 is a majority." Democrats note that pressure to call the Republican "bluff" is growing not simply among their colleagues in Congress but among constituents as well. Democratic leaders add that they are increasingly inclined to listen to them, particularly with midterm elections looming.
But Democratic supporters could find a push to force a GOP filibuster anticlimatic and, ultimately, disappointing. "It reflects a common misperception among House members in the U.S.—that somehow you can force Republicans to filibuster in such a way that it will be embarrassing to them," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The sort of "old-fashioned filibuster full of blustery oratory and grand gestures and senators making caricatures of themselves" would be unlikely to materialize, and recent efforts to force a full-fledged filibuster have failed. The Republicans "just aren't going to accommodate" Democratic wishes. "This isn't Strom Thurmond's 1957 filibuster against civil rights." Far more likely would be a "silent filibuster," which might involve successive roll calls that eat up floor time. "That's not good visuals," says Baker.
But though the electorate is fed up with Senate inaction, polls show that Democrats do have a perception advantage in much of the country. "The public believes that Obama has tried to reach out to the Republicans more than the Republicans have to the Democrats," says David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University. He believes that a real filibuster—even a visually unstimulating one—could reinforce that perception.
What's more, such a move might make Republicans less likely to threaten a filibuster on every vote. "The Democrats don't need the public to be watching the debates with bated breath," Rohde says. "What the Democrats need is the public to think that they are trying to act and that the Republicans are trying to stop them."
In the meantime, Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin and Jeanne Shaheen introduced legislation this month to lower the number of votes required to break a filibuster. The body's rules for ending debate haven't been changed since 1975, when that threshold was changed from 67 votes to the 60 votes required today. The bill's introduction was not greeted particularly enthusiastically by Reid, however, who echoed the prevailing sentiment about the likelihood of it passing on Capitol Hill. It still takes 67 votes to change Senate rules, Reid noted. "And that kind of answers the question."