Democrats Push to Change Senate Filibuster Rules

Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at Netroots Nation in Las Vegas on July 24, 2010, advocated for reforming the filibuster.

With the liberal base simmering with resentment over the slow pace at which the Senate legislates, some Democratic senators and Senate candidates are pushing for filibuster reform. It's up for debate, however, whether the party can find the 50 votes needed to change Senate rules at the start of a new Congress.

The left's resentment over the filibuster came to a boil last weekend at Netroots Nation, the year's largest gathering of progressive bloggers and activists. Pressed by the audience about the filibuster, Senate Majority Leader said he agreed it needed to be reformed.

"This Republican Senate has started abusing the rules, so we're going to have to change it," he said, drawing an analogy to the spitball, which was banned in baseball.

The filibuster is a Senate procedural rule that allows a single senator to indefinitely hold up a debate unless 60 senators vote to stop him. Republicans in the current Senate have used the filibuster more than any other minority in Senate history. Yesterday, for instance, Republicans blocked the campaign finance bill known as the DISCLOSE Act using the filibuster rule. The GOP also used the filibuster to stall the extension of unemployment benefits a number of times.

Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said at Netroots that he plans on proposing a rule change as the first order of business in the new congressional session next year.

Typically, it takes 67 votes to change the rules of the Senate. However, if the Senate votes for a rule change at the beginning of a brand new Senate session, it only takes 50 votes -- plus the tie-breaking vote of the vice president. The typical constitutional interpretation says that it would be unconstitutional to filibuster a rule change at the beginning of a new Senate, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein writes. Once a congressional session has started, however, the Senate is perceived to have acquiesced to the previous Senate's rules, thereby requiring 67 votes for a change.

"I challenge my fellow senators to join me and fix the rules on the first day," Udall said at Netroots. "The Senate's inability to act ... is unacceptable and unsustainable."

The Huffington Post reports on the growing interest in filibuster reform coming from newer members of the Senate, as well as potential new members. Yet the Hill newspaper reports today that there are five Senate Democrats who say they will not support lowering the 60 vote threshold, and another four Senate Democrats say they would be hesitant to support it. There are other members whose votes could be in question.

"It won't happen," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the Hill. She reportedly said she would "probably not" support an effort to lower the number of votes needed to end filibusters from 60 votes to 55 votes or lower.

However, supporters of reform told the Huffington Post that the tally of votes is premature.

"This doesn't change the debate at all," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid. "Change sometimes comes slowly to the Senate. And I think people realize that we need to look into this as it becomes clearer that Republicans are unwilling to cooperate."

Proponents of filibuster reform at Netroots argued that the gridlock in the Senate will lead to a rule change eventually, and that Democrats may as well be the ones to make the rule change while they are still in charge.