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Go nuclear on the filibuster

Harry Reid offers a plan to curb a tactic that has created gridlock in Congress. It's a good start.

December 12, 2012
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks at his weekly news conference following the Democratic luncheon at the U.S. Capitol. Reid addressed negotiations to avert the "fiscal cliff" and mentioned possible changes to filibuster rules in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks at his weekly news conference… (Brendan Hoffman / Getty…)

Nothing exposes partisan hypocrisy quite like the filibuster, that irksome parliamentary rule that allows a minority of U.S. senators to block legislation, judicial appointments and other business by requiring a 60-vote majority to proceed to a vote. Almost invariably, the party in power considers the filibuster to be an enemy of progress that must be squashed, while the minority fights to preserve it at all cost. That the same players often find themselves arguing from opposite sides depending on whether they control the Senate or are in the minority hardly seems to trouble most lawmakers.

So comes now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with a campaign to alter the filibuster rule using the so-called nuclear option, which if invoked on the opening day of the new legislative session would allow senators to change the rules by majority vote. Republicans are appalled that he would consider such a ploy, even though they floated the same proposal when they held the majority in 2005. Back then, reform was blocked when a Gang of 14 senators led negotiations that kept the filibuster largely intact, and top Senate Republicans are reportedly reaching out to their Democratic counterparts in an effort to repeat that "success." We hope they fail.

For the record, we were rooting for the Republicans to go nuclear in 2005, and we feel the same way with Democrats in control. This is not a venerable rule created by the Founding Fathers to protect against the tyranny of the majority, but a procedural nicety that has been altered many times throughout history. In its current incarnation, it goes much too far and has produced gridlock in Congress.

Reid reportedly aims to return to the era of the "talking filibuster," when senators who wanted to hold up a bill had to stand up and debate it ceaselessly, day and night. This doesn't go quite far enough; Reid should also place limits on the number of opportunities for senators to mount filibusters, and put the burden on minority opponents by forcing them to come up with 40 votes to sustain a filibuster, rather than requiring the majority to drum up 60 votes to end it. Nonetheless, Reid's plan is a nice start, requiring those who want to hold up legislation to do so publicly and to use their oratorical skills to explain why such a move is justified.

Even many Democrats realize that someday they'll be in the minority, and fret that a future Republican-dominated chamber will use Reid's precedent to put even stricter limits on filibusters. But that's no reason not to approve Reid's proposal. If some future Senate majority wants to go thermonuclear, that's a debate for another day.

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