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Senate Approves Bipartisan Filibuster Reform, but Changes Are Modest

Capitol View at Dawn

The U.S. Capitol Building. Photo by Mallory Benedict for PBS NewsHour.

The Morning Line

The filibuster, with almost all of its procedural warts and bumps, survives.

Democratic senators failed Wednesday to end the power of their minority party colleagues to halt legislation, with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reaching a deal to (slightly) change the filibuster’s rules.

In the House, the majority can push through almost anything supported by the party. But in the Senate, it takes 60 votes to move major legislation and override a so-called filibuster. The procedure forces senators to compromise, but also means the minority party has the ability to slow down the process — by a lot.

It’s a procedural hurdle, but a big hurdle nonetheless. The biggest misnomer outside of Washington is that a filibuster looks anything like Jimmy Stewart’s famed scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” or even Howard Stackhouse of more recent “West Wing” fame. Senators don’t have to be present in the chamber, and there’s little talking involved at all.

Reid and McConnell’s agreement keeps the basics of the filibuster in place but limits any one senator’s ability to stall a bill’s initial movement to be considered on the floor. The agreement will allow uncontroversial federal nominations to happen more quickly, except for Cabinet and Supreme Court candidates. It also can speed up the pace of the Senate, putting more pressure on that body to translate debate into action.

The agreement, which can be found here, overrides a greater set of changes pushed by younger and more liberal Democratic senators, including Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico.

Merkley said in a statement: “These steps are modest, and don’t address the core problem of the secret, silent filibuster, but they do include some important elements, providing flexibility on the motion to proceed and speeding up the confirmation process on nominations. I would like to have gone further.”

Some groups who’d normally support Reid also disagreed with his compromise. Fix the Senate Now, which represents more than 50 progressive groups, called it a “missed opportunity” and urged for more sweeping procedural reforms.

While Reid expressed frustration with the sluggish way the Senate has worked in recent years, he told the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein that in the end, leaders agreed the Senate “isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.”

That’s in line with the thinking of Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Businessweek. He looked at the filibuster from the perspective of game theory, and pointed out the power of the filibuster gives senators more individual power, and that increases the power of the legislative body.

President Obama issued a statement expressing support for the bipartisan action, which passed with two votes of 78-16 and 86-9:

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. At a time when we face critical decisions on a whole range of issues – from preventing further gun violence, to reforming our broken immigration system, to getting our fiscal house in order and creating good paying jobs – we cannot afford unnecessary obstruction. And 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.

The statement specifically thanked the Senate with hopes that the agreement would usher through more judicial nominees. Confirmations for federal judges became a particular problem for Mr. Obama after filibusters stalled them three times longer than nominees under President George W. Bush. In circuit court appointments alone, twice as many judges — 23 out of 30 nominees — from Mr. Obama waited more than 100 days for a confirmation vote, compared with nine out of 61 of Bush’s appointees, according to White House records.

Of course, any change to the filibuster might not be in the interest of the party in power. After any election, the Senate makeup could flip, and the majority party could find itself in the minority — in need of a filibuster.


As the Obama administration mounts a major push for new gun control measures, Vice President Biden heads to Richmond, Va., on Friday for a roundtable with lawmakers and key players in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.

The trip comes one day after Biden sat down for a Google-Plus hangout moderated by the NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan. For more than 30 minutes, Biden took wide-ranging questions from citizens engaged in the debate and outlined ways he thinks the administration can make progress on the issue, even as lawmakers on Capitol Hill acknowledge it’s a steep climb to pass a new assault weapons ban.

Hari asked Biden for his interpretation of the Second Amendment. Here’s what the vice president said:

It’s an individual right, not a corporate right, not related to a militia. You have an individual right to own a weapon both for recreation, for hunting, and also for your self-protection. You have an individual right to do that.

But just as you don’t have an individual right to go out and buy an F-15 if you’re a billionaire with ordnance on it, just like you don’t have the right to go buy an M-1 tank, just like you don’t have a right to buy an automatic weapon, those judgments have been made that there are no societal — reasonable societal justification or constitutional justification for owning them.

The more public effort is a dual track for the White House to seize on momentum for gun control while working on legislative changes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made a big show Thursday of her re-introduction of the assault weapons ban but faces opponents from even her own party.

As the Rothenberg Political Report’s Jessica Taylor points out some conservative Democrats have used their gun-friendly positions to keep winning races. Roll Call’s Abby Livingston highlights five races where the gun debate really matters.

The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, released a poll of 1,000 randomly selected members showing that 89 percent oppose banning semi-automatic weapons and 93 percent will not support national registration for gun owners. They also note that 91 percent of members support laws keeping firearms away from the mentally ill.

After his report on Thursday’s NewsHour, Hari sat down with Christina to walk through the politics. She pointed out that much of this fight can be viewed in the context of the 2014 and 2016 elections. Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ new political action committee aims to raise $20 million for the next midterm elections, for example.

Watch here or below:

You can watch the hangout in full here or below:

Check out the NewsHour’s in-depth coverage of this issue on our new page, The Gun Debate.


  • Mr. Obama will introduce Denis McDonough as the new White House chief of staff on Friday. McDonough was most recently a member of the president’s national security team.

  • Mr. Obama will sit down with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a joint interview with Steve Kroft to air on CBS’ “60 Minutes” this weekend.

  • Virginia, Pennsylvania and other Republican-led states are looking at ways to re-map the Electoral College. The Washington Post looks at how electoral votes allotted by congressional districts instead of a statewide winner-take-all could have swung the 2012 election heavily for Mitt Romney and what it could mean in future contests.

  • Politico’s Manu Raju looks at Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain’s role in the next immigration debate.

  • Huffington Post’s Jon Ward reports on Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s talk radio charm offensive to sell immigration reform.

  • It’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s last day. Here’s The New Republic’s exit interview.

  • Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz grades the campaign committees and created this nifty chart.

  • At a meeting in Charlotte, N.C., this week, Republican National Committee members sketched out plans to rebuild state parties.

  • Politico’s campaign finance team assesses the new Obama “grass-roots” group.

  • Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is not impressed with Cory Booker’s tenure as Newark mayor.

  • Luke Rosiak of the Washington Times analyzes congressional staffing data to find the best and worst bosses on Capitol Hill.

  • Rhode Island’s state House approved gay marriage Thursday. The state Senate is next.

  • In another testament to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s ability to transcend traditional partisan politics, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will host a fundraiser in February for the Republican, Buzzfeed reports. The Democratic Governors Association is petitioning Zuckerberg to cancel the event.

  • Harvard’s Institute of Politics announced its new crop of fellows for the spring semester. They include former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, political analyst Charlie Cook, former ambassador Karen Hughes, top Democratic Party official Steve Kerrigan, former Eric Cantor aide John Murray and journalist Keith Richburg. Jon Huntsman will do a short-term visiting fellowship, along with CNN’s John King and former Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado. The group is tasked with hosting informal study groups for undergraduate students.

  • Kennedy family heirlooms are going to auction Feb. 17. If you have a few Benjamins to drop, may we suggest the French letter opener, the presidential Zippo lighter and the totally awesome (and bipartisan!) JFK Air Force One bomber jacket worn by both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

  • Friday’s tidbit from NewsHour partner Face the Facts USA defines “food insecurity.” Arkansas and Mississippi have the most households facing this issue — 19.2 percent of the population.


  • In Gwen’s Take this week, Gwen Ifill writes about the Republican agenda for Mr. Obama’s second term: “The Obama team has plans — climate change, gun control, health care implementation. The Romney team had plans too. Tax reform. Energy policy. Entitlement reform. All sidelined.”

  • Gwen also hosted a live chat for Washington Week. Read it here and find out who would play her in a movie.

  • The NewsHour led the show with a report and discussion about the new changes allowing women to serve in combat.

  • Ray Suarez is blogging from Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. Here is day one and here is day two.

  • Watch Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation hearing in full here.

  • Paul Solman posts video of D.C.’s funniest economists.


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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

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