Once again, our leading lawmakers have failed to deliver the goods. After months of countless efforts by well-meaning advocacy groups and elected officials to modify filibuster rules, Sen., the Democratic majority leader, killed the initiative dead in its tracks, opting instead for two meager modifications to procedural protocols.
His only explanation for the frustrated multitudes was his feeble admission that “I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold. With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.”
As many congratulated Reid for “pulling defeat from the jaws of victory,” he seems quite satisfied with the baby steps that he and Sen. , the Republican minority leader, have actually agreed to make. The procedural changes adopted are minor, designed to provide easier access to bills and to add a minimum of two amendments by each party to a pending bill, but at least some progress was made.
"It's not everything I wanted," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who, with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), had worked tirelessly for the past year to correct the broken filibuster process. "This is a small step, but it's a step that moves us in a better direction."
While many other Democrats shook their heads in amazement, even President Barack Obama tried to spin the tepid results in their best light. In a prepared statement after the vote, he said, “Too often over the past four years, a single senator or a handful of senators has been able to unilaterally block or delay bipartisan legislation for the sole purpose of making a political point. I am hopeful that today's bipartisan agreement will pave the way for the Senate to take meaningful action in the days and weeks ahead.”
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has been covering this issue in-depth for the past few years, noting that the use or the threat of a filibuster in the Senate has skyrocketed while the GOP has been in the minority, bringing the Senate to its knees over things as mundane as simple judicial appointments. This stalling tactic has been used nearly 400 times over the last two sessions, not sparingly as in prior administrations. If the Senate is to be the deliberative body that most tout it to be, then something has to be done to get the debate started in the first place. As it is, rarely anything gets to the floor for any substantive discussion.
As one Senate aide pointed out to Klein, “Do not underestimate how much appreciation for the filibuster there is among senators who have been in the minority of this body and have been able to hold up legislation. Remember, estate tax repeal got 59 votes in 2006.”
Young reformists like Udall and Merkley had pinned their hopes on what has been termed the “41-vote rule.” Under current procedures, if the majority wishes to stop a filibuster, it must assemble 60 so-inclined individuals at one time and one place to vote for the stoppage. The 41-vote rule would have reversed the process, requiring the minority to assemble 41 so-inclined individuals to continue the filibuster, an interesting concept if the leader of the Senate called for a vote on a weekend or in the wee hours of the night.
People opposed to filibuster reform (Republicans and a few Democrats this time around) have called this approach the “nuclear” option. Reid had already stated publicly that he did not wish to pursue this option. Democrats feared that this strong-arm method, if employed to force McConnell into a corner, would only draw a ton of retribution and retaliation from the shrewd minority leader. "It just would have been thermonuclear war," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to Reid.
And so the beat goes on, the molasses continues to move at a snail’s pace, or whatever metaphor is more appropriate for the occasion. Exactly what will it take to stimulate the governing juices to flow again in the Senate? Reid seems overly pleased that the issue is behind him for now and that he was able to get McConnell to agree to anything. Reid’s last comment on the topic sounds like a meek attempt to keep hope alive for reform: “The only way we’ll get rid of the filibuster is if it continues to be abused,” he said. “Hopefully, what we’ll do here will stop some of the abuse.”
Reid’s opinion may be that potential bills will now move more swiftly through the ponderous halls of his chamber, but as Klein points out,
“In some ways, it’s shocking that filibuster reform got as far as it did. Republicans hold the House, meaning filibuster reform now would translate into new Democratic accomplishments … Republicans have a natural advantage in both the House and Senate going forward, meaning that the next unified majority is very likely to be Republican … But if you’re a Senate Democrat, this will likely dim your enthusiasm a bit.”
And so we wait for new legislative initiatives to assess how the new procedures will work. Immigration reform and gun control are top items on the near-term agenda, as well as the deficit “can” that has been kicked down the road far too many times. At least the new debt-ceiling extension defers salary payments for congressmen until the Senate adopts a budget, one type of incentive that has not been tried in recent memory, but these wealthy sloths would more than likely not miss a paycheck or two, like the rest of us. Out of touch, out of mind. When is the next election, anyway? Lean Forward!
References: Embedded links provided, but points made are primarily the opinion of the author.