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

Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell

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Daniel Foster

Senate Republicans, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R., Ky.) blessing and led publicly by Senators Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), have launched a new-media initiative called “Stop the Nuclear Option,” complete with website, Facebook-share button, and Twitter hashtag suggestions (including #NuclearOption, #PowerGrab, and #CoupAttempt). Its uphill mission is to make the GOP interest-group coalition care about that bit of Senate esoterica that is the filibuster, and the dust-filmed procedure Harry Reid’s Democrats intend to use to destroy it.

As with so much that is digital, the GOP is late to this party. For two years already, a group of lawyers, Greenies, and union honchos have, through a coalition called “Fix the Senate Now,” pushed for major curbs on the filibuster. And they’ve gobbled up most of what oxygen there is in the stuffy room that is public interest in the Senate’s recondite rules. So far ahead of the Republicans’ late efforts are they, in fact, that if you type “stopthenuclearoption.org” (a sensible enough guess for the URL of the GOP webpage) into your browser, you’re redirected to fixthesenatenow.org.

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Through two years and thousands of phone calls’ worth of old-fashioned lobbying, Fix the Senate Now has gained traction with Democrats, to the point that Nancy Pelosi, the White House, and Reid himself endorse their program. That program’s end is the reintroduction of the “talking filibuster” in certain cases, and its complete elimination in others. Its key tactic is the “constitutional” or “nuclear” option, which would allow the Senate to amend its rules at the beginning of the new Congress with 51 votes instead of the 67 traditionally needed. This isn’t the first time a Senate majority has threatened to kill the filibuster process. In 1975, the number of votes needed to invoke cloture — and thus end debate on a measure, and move to a final vote — was lowered from 67 to 60 as a compromise to preserve the filibuster. In 2005, the “Gang of Fourteen” saved the filibuster with a vague, weak handshake agreement. And in 2011, a vaguer, weaker handshake agreement between Reid and McConnell headed off the first Fix-the-Senate-backed coup.

But this time around, the jig could really be up. The other deals relied on institutional loyalists and leadership buy-in, in both parties, to win out over the enthusiasms of the rank and file. But this time, Reid himself is leading the charge to change the rules, and 21 of the 55 members who will caucus with him in the next Senate will have taken their seats in 2009 or later. A lot of these newbies are hot to trot.

“The problem is that most of the people that are talking the loudest about [the nuclear option] have never served in the minority,” says Don “Stew” Stewart, a veteran Senate hand who has headed Leader McConnell’s communications shop since 2006. “They have no idea what it’s like.”



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