Sen. Harry Reid, seen last month, and Sen. Mitch McConnell have announced… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON – The Senate approved rules changes Thursday that will limit the use of the filibuster as a weapon in the partisan obstruction that has ground action in the chamber to a near standstill.
The deal, between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), fell short of the sweeping reforms sought largely by liberal senators and their allies.
Excluded from the deal was a key component that would have required any senator wishing to conduct a filibuster to remain talking on the Senate floor in the style James Stewart made famous in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Instead, the top Senate leaders crafted a more modest agreement that will allow legislation to be brought up for debate more quickly, and limit debate over certain nominations from the White House, including for judges on the circuit courts and positions of sub-Cabinet members.
The changes were overwhelmingly approved, 78-16 and 86-9, with dissent mainly from conservative Republicans.
The last few years have seen record numbers of filibusters, largely led by Republicans seeking to block President Obama’s agenda in the Senate in what has become an escalating procedural arms race. A filibuster can tie the chamber in knots because it only comes to an end with a 60-vote supermajority.
Even when the supermajority is reached, procedures still require at least three days for each filibuster to be overcome. Democrats also sought to obstruct then-President George W. Bush with the filibuster.
“The incremental ‘reforms’ in the agreement do not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change,” said a statement from Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of legal scholars and liberal activists that has pushed the issue. The group said the Senate “missed an opportunity to restore accountability and deliberation to the Senate, while not raising the costs of obstruction.”
To be sure, the agreement forged between Reid and McConnell will help usher legislation along more swiftly in the slow-moving chamber.
Senators give up their ability to filibuster – or hold endless debate – on the procedural step that is required to proceed to a piece of legislation. In exchange for giving up the right to filibuster on the motion to proceed, both sides are guaranteed the opportunity to offer two amendments to the bill – a particularly important provision for the minority Republicans, who have long complained they are forced to filibuster because Reid blocks them from trying to amend bills with votes on provisions Democrats dislike.
Even though senators can still filibuster the actual bill, eliminating the filibuster on the procedural step will cut days off the debate time.
Over the years, senators have reached a gentlemen’s agreement not to press the requirement that they remain on the floor talking for any filibuster, as was the case in the classic Frank Capra movie.
One aspect of the “talking filibuster” will be put in place: Once the Senate achieves the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster and vote on a bill, senators will need to remain speaking on the floor if they refuse to waive the 30 hours of final debate time that is allowed.
Once the vote threshold is reached to end a filibuster on White House nominees to district court, debate time will be reduced from 30 hours to two; for sub-Cabinet positions, it will be limited to eight hours.
“It’s not everything I wanted, and what we filed and advocated for, but I think this is progress in terms of making the institution work better,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who had led efforts with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to change the filibuster rules.
The ability to filibuster has been part of Senate history. Cutting off debate with a supermajority was allowed only after a rule change in 1917, when then-President Woodrow Wilson sought to overcome Senate reservations about entering the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. Decades later, then-Sen. Strom Thurmond’s record 24-hour filibuster stalled civil rights legislation.
The result has gummed up the Senate, a chamber the forefathers designed to move slower than the fiery House – but perhaps not as slow as this. But veteran senators have been hesitant to change the rules of the Senate, often considered the more deliberative of the two chambers.