Democrats Prepare to Fight the Filibuster

Liberal lawmakers may try to change Senate rules next year if Democrats retain their majority.

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One challenge of the American democratic system is to have the majority govern without trampling the minority. It is always a difficult balance, but these days it is a recipe for frequent gridlock in the U.S. Senate. The latest case in point: Last week, opposition by the minority Republicans killed the White House-supported Disclose Act, which would have required financial backers of campaign ads to identify themselves. Some Democrats, their policy ambitions again frustrated, are pushing to change the filibuster rules to make it easier to overcome opposition from the GOP.

Senate rules require that three-fifths of the Senate vote to end debate on any bill and bring it to a final majority-rules vote. The Disclose Act, lacking any GOP supporter, had a numerical majority from Democrats but fell three votes short of the necessary 60-vote supermajority. The measure joins the long list of Democratic legislation that has been blocked, delayed, or substantially pared down this session due to the filibuster—or even just the threat of one.

The filibuster has become a powerful weapon. In the 110th Congress from 2007 through 2009, extended-debate problems affected 70 percent of major legislation, up from 8 percent in the 1960s, according to research by Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at the University of California—Los Angeles. Sinclair says the percentage appears to be even higher in the current session.

Legislative gridlock is taking a toll on both parties, with polls showing that members of Congress are held in low regard by voters for their inability to deal with many of the nation's problems. GOP leaders say they are using the filibuster to block an extreme Democratic agenda. Democratic voters are unhappy with the legislative setbacks at a time when the White House and both houses of Congress are in Democratic hands. Even on bills that passed, like the healthcare and financial regulations overhauls, Democrats have had to make major concessions to the few centrist Republicans, like Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, to reach the magic 60 votes. [See where Snowe's campaign cash comes from.]

Many Democrats have grown serious about ending what they regard as GOP abuse of the filibuster rules, before their legislation meets the same stalled fate in the 112th Congress, when Democrats anticipate having a smaller majority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid along with Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois support changing filibuster rules when the new Congress convenes in January. Technically, it takes 67 votes to change Senate rules, an unreachable number, but Democrats are looking at a procedural measure that arguably allows for a simple majority to do the trick at the start of next session. [See who gives the most to Reid's campaign.]

Last Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, held the fourth in a series of hearings on filibuster reform. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg proposed using the movie classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a reference point. Lautenberg said his "Mr. Smith bill" would keep the three-fifths majority requirement to cut off debate, but would force filibustering senators to speak on the floor for as long as they were willing to block the bill, as a lone senator played by Jimmy Stewart does in the 1939 film. A rule established in 1964 permits senators to resume other business during a filibuster. "The filibuster—which used to be an extraordinary event—has become nothing more than a routine dilatory tactic," argued Lautenberg. "And it is now a silent filibuster—you can expend next to no effort to slow down and stop the Senate from considering legislation."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out in defense of the filibuster at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast yesterday. "I don't think any of that is a threat to the nation," McConnell said. "It helps you understand why the leaders do what they do in different situations because we're not dictators. We have to respond to our members. So that is why things tend to move like they do." [See which industries give the most to McConnell.]