Feature

Why Democrats are threatening to revisit filibuster reform

As more of Obama's nominees face filibusters, reform advocates see a window for big changes

Since Democrats scrapped robust filibuster reform from their agenda earlier this year, Republicans have effectively blocked votes on cabinet appointees, budget measures, and a ban on assault weapons.

Irked by the repeated obstruction, some Democrats now want to revisit the filibuster as a way to force the GOP to the negotiating table — or to circumvent Republicans entirely.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Reid revived the threat of filibuster reform after Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) blocked progress on a stop-gap measure to fund the government, and demanded that Reid instead schedule a vote on an amendment to replace the automatic budget cuts contained in the sequester. The move prompted Reid to say that the Senate may "have to reassess all the rules, because right now they accomplish so little."

What Reid meant was a reassessment, once again, of the Senate's rules governing filibusters, the arcane vote-stalling tactic that critics say is being chronically abused — so much so that the Senate can barely fulfill its governing duties.

At the start of this year's legislative session, there was high hope that Congress would reach a bipartisan agreement to revise the filibuster. But after negations stalled in January, the Senate passed a watered-down reform package that failed to satisfy proponents of more substantive change. Reid's critics argued that, had he pushed harder and made good on a threat to use the "nuclear option" — a controversial procedural tactic of passing legislation with a simple majority — he could have emerged with a better deal.

That criticism has only grown louder in recent months, in response to Republicans using the tactic to delay high-profile presidential appointments.

In February, Republicans filibustered Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's nomination for weeks. Coming as it did on the heels of a handshake agreement by both parties to work together, Democrats and reform advocates began calling on Reid to "make it absolutely clear that this won’t be tolerated," as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent put it at the time.

Remember, the watered down filibuster reform deal Reid agreed to was at least partly premised on the idea that both sides were at least somewhat committed to ending some of the abuses that rendered the Senate dysfunctional during Obama's first term. We now see that Republicans are making a mockery of that arrangement. This goes well beyond Hagel; as always, it goes to the question of whether we are going to have a functional Senate. [Washington Post]

Those calls intensified weeks later, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delayed by 13 hours John Brennan's confirmation to head the CIA. Paul's old-school, talking filibuster was widely praised as an appropriate use of the filibuster — as opposed to modern rules that allow single senators to hold up votes with a mere threat — and led Reid to hint that he would in fact revisit it once again.

In the weeks that followed, Republicans placed a hold on President Obama's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and lined up to filibuster his choice for labor secretary, too. On Tuesday, a proposed assault weapons ban quietly died, with Reid acknowledging that Democrats just didn't have to votes to break a threatened filibuster if the ban was included in a larger gun-control package.

For now, Reid's renewed threat has no real teeth. He has not added filibuster reform back to the agenda, so much as he's said he could potentially do so in the near future. However, if Obama's latest nominees run into the same kind of opposition that waylaid the last round of confirmation hearings, that threat could get a lot louder.

As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein noted earlier this month, the idea of filibuster reform is out there now, and it's not going to go away as long as Democrats keep feeling like they're getting stonewalled.

The idea’s on the table now. And it returns every time the majority feels the minority is abusing the spirit of the last compromise. Which is pretty much all the time. [Washington Post]

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