Politics & Policy

Ruling the Senate

A high-stakes effort to change the filibuster comes to a tentative end.

Liberal lawmakers and activists seeking to eliminate the Senate filibuster, and thus ease the passage of President Obama’s boldly progressive agenda, have failed. Senate leaders reached a tentative agreement Thursday that would keep the 60-vote requirement to end a filibuster largely intact, thus preserving the minority party’s ability to block or slow legislation it opposes.

#ad#“Failibuster,” read the lead headline from left-wing news outlet Huffington Post, plastered above a photo of a grinning Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), the Senate minority leader. Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of labor unions, environmentalist groups, and other liberal activists whose policy priorities were defeated by filibusters in Obama’s first term (card check, cap-and-trade, health-care public option), called the proposed deal “another missed opportunity.”

Republicans are not wild about the agreement, but they concede that it is far better than the alternative: the so-called “nuclear option.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) had threatened, in the absence of a deal, to exploit an arcane rule permitting a 51-vote threshold for changing Senate rules. “Reid had the votes, and he was crazy enough to pull the trigger,” said a Senate Republican aide. “So we feel like we averted disaster.”

Additionally, the proposed deal does not include the most onerous Democratic proposal — the so-called “talking filibuster,” which would require objecting senators to physically hold the floor by speaking, and then set a 51-vote threshold to end the filibuster once those senators stopped talking. GOP aides say this particular proposal was designed in a way that would effectively eliminate the filibuster altogether, which was the ultimate goal of the activists and lawmakers pushing “reform.”

The effort was a wholly self-serving exercise. In 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate and were mulling similar rule changes (before ultimately deciding against it), Reid defended the filibuster as “a tool that serves the long-term interest of the Senate and the American people and our country,” as well as “the last check we have against the abuse of power in Washington.”

And so it will remain, albeit with some minor tweaks. The tentative deal would make it easier for the Senate to initiate a conference with the House after both chambers have passed a bill by allowing for only one filibuster, as opposed to three. It would also make it slightly easier for Reid to bring legislation to the floor for debate, provided the minority party is able to offer two amendments on each bill, which had been a chief GOP concern.

Republicans contend their frequent use of the filibuster over the past several years was an act less of obstruction than of frustration. Reid, for example, had routinely blocked GOP amendments from being considered, in part to prevent his Democratic colleagues from having to cast politically challenging votes. “For us, the problem was never the rules, the problem was Harry Reid,” said the GOP aide.

The outlines of the proposed deal, GOP aides contend, reflects the prevailing influence of cooler heads — old-school Democrats, such as Carl Levin (D., Mich.) and Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), who have served in the Senate long enough to be skeptical of sweeping changes to long-standing rules and procedure. Concerns over the “nuclear option,” and the perilous precedent it would set, were shared by a number of veteran Democrats.

#page#The current effort, aides say, was emboldened by the incoming class of left-wing freshman Democrats, such as Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren, who do not share this reverence for precedent, and who have never had to serve in the minority.

Had liberal agitators gotten their wish, Republicans argue, Democrats would have gained a significant political advantage by allowing them to swiftly pass contentious legislation and then apply public pressure on House Republicans to act.

#ad#And there was always the nightmare scenario: the unlikely but not impossible event that Democrats retake the House in 2014, and retain a majority in the Senate, with minority rights in that chamber having been significantly weakened.

That would allow Obama to finish out his second term as he started his first — with an emboldened Democratic Congress to effectively rubber-stamp his agenda.

That scenario has been averted for now. “The left is blowing up over this,” remarked a GOP aide. “That’s usually a good sign.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.

Andrew Stiles — Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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