TOPICS > Politics

Senators Spar Over Filibusters, Blaming Rules for Constant Partisan Gridlock

November 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Going into a high-stakes confrontation over the federal deficit and fiscal cliff, Democrats have begun to push for filibuster reform, citing it as a barrier to progress. Kwame Holman looks back at the history of the filibuster, how that strategy has evolved and what it may mean for congressional progress and bipartisanship.
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JEFFREY BROWN: George Washington famously described the Senate as the saucer that cools the tea, a body designed to soothe hot legislation that emerged from the House of Representatives.

But, as congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports, some senators have gotten pretty steamed over a proposed change to how their chamber operates.

KWAME HOLMAN: A sign of the holiday season, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree arrived in Washington on Monday. But behind the festive scene outside, there was a partisan war raging inside on the floor of the Senate.

The combatants, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: Americans believe Congress is broken. Once again, the only ones who disagree are Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in Congress.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: I have never said the Senate’s working fine. I think the Senate’s been disastrously run for the last two years.

HARRY REID: The American people know, Democrats and Republicans, that this place isn’t working and there needs to be some changes, so that we can proceed to get some legislations passed.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Disastrously run, but not because of the rules, but because of the operation. And it’s certainly not the fault of the Republicans.

KWAME HOLMAN: The war of words comes as Democrats look to make changes to Senate rules playing a big role in that gridlock, specifically use of the filibuster used to block or delay Senate action on a bill by debating it at length or offering numerous procedural roadblocks, unless a supermajority of 60 senators votes to proceed.

Veteran congress-watcher Norman Ornstein is with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: There’s been four years especially of deep frustration on the part of Democrats, frustration because the filibuster has been used really over the last six years, but in particular over the last four, in ways that it was never in history used before.

KWAME HOLMAN: Designed to protect the rights of the minority party in the Senate, the filibuster was used sparingly, and usually on issues of great importance, such as civil rights. But it has become a regular tool of political warfare. And questions are being raised about its impact on the chamber.

Now Reid and other Senate Democrats want to change the rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold needed to formally begin debate on a bill and require a talking filibuster, forcing senators to make their case on the floor for hours and hours, as Jimmy Stewart did in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

JIMMY STEWART, actor: Well, I’m not late. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause.

KWAME HOLMAN: Or former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who spoke for more than 24 hours in an attempt to defeat the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

But in today’s Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass almost any piece of legislation, it means even the threat of a filibuster can gum up the process.

Democratic leader Harry Reid says enough is enough.

HARRY REID: So, we have this crazy idea, Mr. President, that if you’re going to have a filibuster, you have to stand and say something, not hide in your office someplace or go to a wedding that you’re having in your state.

KWAME HOLMAN: One of Reid’s key allies in the fight is Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has been pushing for filibuster reform for almost two decades.

SEN. TOM HARKIN, D-Iowa: When I first broached the subject of changing the filibuster rule back in 1995, I warned at that time of an escalating arms race. And I said, if we don’t stop this, it’s going to get to the point where the Senate will not be able to function.

I said that in 1995, when I first tried to get this change done. Sadly enough, my predictions have come true. It’s got to the point where you have to have a supermajority for everything.

KWAME HOLMAN: With Capitol Hill on edge over the fiscal cliff negotiations, Republican leader McConnell has questioned the timing on Reid’s part.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: If I were the leader of the majority right now, I would feel really good about the election. I kept my majority in the Senate. The president was reelected.

Boy, the first thing on my agenda would be, now, how can I reach out to the minority? We have got big issues that can only be solved on a bipartisan basis.

How can I be building bipartisan confidence going into these huge issues that we have before us?

The last thing on my list would have been to throw a bomb into the Senate, and have it blow up and have everybody mad as heck.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats have said they won’t move forward on any changes before January, when the 113th Congress begins.

At that point, under conditions that only apply on the first day of a new session, they could alter the Senate rules by a simple majority, known as the nuclear option, with the help of the chamber’s presiding officer, Vice President Joe Biden.

SEN. TOM COBURN, R-Okla.: The Senate will unwind. If this happens, the total Senate will unwind.

KWAME HOLMAN: Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn contends that revising the Senate rules would go against what the founders intended.

TOM COBURN: The United States Senate was set up different than the United States House.

They had two things in mind. One is to slow processes down, so that more thought, rather than reaction to the populace, would go into legislation, a cooling period. And the second was to protect minority rights.

KWAME HOLMAN: And he says changing the rules would strip away those rights.

TOM COBURN: Once you start that, what you’re going to have is the House of Representatives in the Senate. Minority rights will ultimately never be protected, and so you will — you won’t — you will — you will just have another House of Representatives.

If we’re going to do that, let’s go to a unicameral legislature, because that’s what you’re going to have.

KWAME HOLMAN: Not so, says Iowa’s Harkin.

TOM HARKIN: If they want to slow things down or if they want to offer amendments, the minority should have the right to be able to offer germane amendments to bills that are on the Senate floor.

But the minority shouldn’t have the right or the power to absolutely stop something.

KWAME HOLMAN: This is not the Senate’s first brush with the nuclear option. In 2005, then-Republican majority leader Bill Frist threatened to change Senate rules by simple majority after Democrats blocked 10 of President Bush’s judicial nominees.

A bipartisan group of senators known as the gang of 14 brokered a compromise that allowed a vote on some nominees without any changes to Senate rules.

Republicans say the recent uptick in filibusters is a justified response to Reid’s use of another legislative tactic known as filling the tree.

The maneuver allows the majority leader to seize control of all opportunities for offering amendments to a bill, blocking senators from the minority party from introducing any other changes. Oklahoma’s Coburn says that has resulted in a legislative tit for tat.

TOM COBURN: The Senate’s history, go look at it. We have never had a majority leader that has cut off the minority’s rights to offer amendments. And so the reaction is, well, if I can’t get any amendment, I can’t do the job I was sent here, why would I allow you to proceed?

KWAME HOLMAN: Iowa’s Harkin agrees the minority should be able to offer amendments, but not if the intent is simply to stall legislation.

TOM HARKIN: Because then you kill a bill by offering 1,000 amendments. Is that what Mr. Coburn wants, that anybody can offer any amendment at any time on any subject, and you can just keep going like that? I mean, again, that is where the minority then trumps the majority.

KWAME HOLMAN: Both Senate leaders have raised the option of talks to avert a rules change come January. But, as the end of the current session approaches, no formal meetings have been scheduled.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can find extended clips of Kwame’s interviews with Senators Harkin and Coburn. That’s on our website.