Filibuster Reform Takes Center Stage on First Day Back

The invaluable tool used by whoever is in the minority is on the verge of major reform.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, is seen on Capitol Hill with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
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In the first hours back in the Senate, it was filibuster reform, not the fiscal cliff, that stole the spotlight.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to reform the filibuster in January after the new Congress is sworn in, but the minority is fighting back early.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the floor just minutes after the start of the post-Thanksgiving session, giving a spirited defense of the filibuster—a parliamentary procedure that allows the minority to delay votes almost indefinitely and has been used with more frequency in recent years.

"What these Democrats have in mind is a fundamental change to the way the Senate operates for the purpose of consolidating their own power and further marginalizing the minority voices that the Senate was built to protect," McConnell said. "In the name of 'efficiency,' they would prevent the very possibility of compromise, and threaten to make the disputes of the past few years look like pillow fights."

Reid has committed to revamp the filibuster process, which he argues Republicans have overused—nearly 70 times in the 112th Congress—to stall important legislation. But the specifics of what that reform would look like are still fuzzy.

Reid's plan wouldn't put an end to the filibuster altogether, which effectively means all major legislation would still require 60 votes. But it's likely the proposed plan would stop the use of filibusters that stall the debate of a bill. And Reid has said he might require lawmakers to keep the mic going until the filibuster ends. That could mean more knock-down, drag-out fights on the Senate floor like the one in 1957 when South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act for more than 24 hours by reading historical speeches like President George Washington's farewell address.

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Of course, experts say they have seen empty promises of filibuster reform before, and most of the attempts have failed.

"I think the filibuster debate will be under debate in a way we haven't seen for a while, but I doubt any major change will come of it," says Jacob Hacker, the director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. "Even modest reforms are going to have a tough time passing."

Typically, a leader needs a two-thirds majority to revise Senate rules.

Of course, some interpretations of the rules say that at the beginning of a new Congress, the majority leader can push through new rules with a 51-vote majority. But Republicans say they'd fight hard against such a power grab.

"It will shut down the Senate," Texas Sen. John Cornyn told Politico. "It's such an abuse of power."

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Lauren Fox is a political reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at lfox@usnews.com.