The Plot to Kill the Filibuster
And the last-ditch bipartisan effort to save it

Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell


Daniel Foster

“They are sitting there thinking, there’s a lot of stuff we can jam through right now,” another senior adviser to Senate Republicans, who asked not to be named, tells me. “Knock the four most conservative members off the 55 incoming Democrats, and think about the sort of legislation you could pass.”

Indeed, the Fix the Senate Now website includes a section called “Consequences of Obstruction,” under which are listed the most prominent recent victims of cloture votes. It’s a murderer’s row of fashionable Democratic fixations — Cap and Trade, the DREAM Act, Card Check, DISCLOSE — all of which would be law if the Senate functioned like the streamlined, supercharged Varsity House of Representatives these Democrats want it to be.

The streamlined, supercharged part is the other half of the battle. Neutering the filibuster would give the majority party more control of floor time by orders of magnitude, and therefore of the legislative calendar. Rather than have to be strategic about their priorities, the Democrats could push legislation through debate at Ludicrous Speed. And even if they fell short of the 51 votes needed for final passage on a particular bill, they could move on to the next thing lickety-split. Imagine it: taxes, regulation, and stimulus, all before lunch.

Indeed, Republicans got a taste of what such a Senate would be like this week, on the TAG bill (a holdover from the TARP era) — when Reid broke a land-speed record in “filling the tree” (that is, blocking all possible amendments to the bill) and filing for cloture (that is, daring a filibuster) less than two minutes after Republicans voted overwhelmingly to begin debate on the measure.

On the conference call, Senator Johnson called the way Reid constantly fills the tree (he’s done it 107 times so far) “unconscionable” and a major reason for the partisan tit for tat that has ground the Senate to a halt.

“If Senator Reid would allow regular order, I don’t think he’d be faced with the number of cloture votes, the number of filibusters that he is having to deal with,” Johnson said.

So is there any hope? The best chance to break the stalemate, while saving some semblance of the filibuster, and the Senate’s heritage, is a series of informal, back-channel meetings between top Senate Republicans and a group of Democratic old-timers leery of the proposed changes — including, most critically, Rules Committee chairman Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who told Politico that “we’d all like to avert the nuclear option.”

This group of Democrats also includes Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), Carl Levin (D., Mich.), and, according to some, even Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.). Republicans would need to peel off only a handful of Democrats to prevent the rule change.

While he wouldn’t get into specifics of negotiations, Johnson said that “there are some very-good-faith efforts going on” and that many Democrats “understand our concerns.”

“Stew” Stewart, who saw the last two Mexican standoffs over the filibuster firsthand and lived to tell about it, is optimistic. He thinks the two sides will come to a deal on rules changes and avoid the nuclear option. The key, he says, will be veteran Democrats’ reminding their new colleagues that they won’t always be in the majority.

“I think maybe some of the older guys there are going to start to say ‘Hey, wait a minute, guys, we can change the rules without setting up a precedent in a way that we’re totally screwed in two years.’”

 Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.