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Harkin Takes Aim at Filibuster

As Sen. Joe Lieberman comes under fire for holding up the Senate health care debate, one of his more liberal colleagues is considering a bill that would keep senators from using the filibuster to kill a piece of legislation. And as it turns out, Lieberman was once also opposed to filibustering a bill to death.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told reporters on Thursday he is considering re-introducing a bill to significantly soften the power of the filibuster, the Burlington Hawk Eye first reported.

Harkin first introduced the bill in 1995 -- with Lieberman as a co-sponsor.

"I think, if anything, this health care debate is showing the dangers of unlimited filibuster," Harkin reportedly said. "I think there's a reason for slowing things down ... and getting the public aware of what's happening and maybe even to change public sentiment, but not to just absolutely stop something."

According to Senate rules, a senator may stall a vote on a piece of legislation by calling a filibuster. The rules dictate that 60 senators must vote for cloture -- the motion to end debate and proceed with a vote -- in order to overcome the filibuster.

The filibuster was initially intended to stall debate, but in recent history it has been used to simply block legislation opposed by the minority party.

Republicans are certain to filibuster the Democrats' health care bill in the Senate, so Democrats need all 60 members of their caucus -- including Lieberman -- to agree to at least vote to end debate. (There is another arcane Senate rule called "reconciliation" that would allow Democrats to pass a modified health reform bill with only 51 votes, but the Democratic leadership has resisted that option.)

Lieberman has reportedly said he would join a Republican filibuster of any bill he is not satisfied with because he considers a procedural vote, like a cloture vote to end debate, to be no different than an actual vote in favor of the legislation.

That stands in sharp contrast to comments he made when he supported Harkin's 1995 bill: "The filibuster has become not only in reality an obstacle to accomplishment here, but it also a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today," Lieberman said then, as shown in a video of footage from 1995 and 2009 compiled by the SEIU.

Harkin explained to reporters that his legislative proposal would not simply eliminate the filibuster. It would instead bring it back to its original purpose, which was to slow debate.

The Hawk Eye explains: "Harkin's proposal back in 1995 would have kept the 60-vote rule for the first vote but lessening the number required in subsequent votes. He said for instance if 60 senators could not agree to end debate, it would carry on for another week or so and then the number of votes required to end debate would drop by three. Harkin said it would carry on this way until it reached a simple majority of 51 votes."

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