Congress Could Limit Senators' Ability To Filibuster

Senate leaders have reached an agreement to limit filibusters in the new Congress, especially as they relate to presidential nominations. But they stopped short of requiring senators to hold the floor in person and in real time, as the classic filibuster required.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Senate is known for its special rules, none of them more famous than the filibuster. The practice was once called talking a bill to death and some of the classic filibusters went on for months. More recently, the filibuster has functioned more as a very effective threat. Those threats have proliferated to the point that they largely govern the flow of bills and nominations through the Senate. Now, the Senate has agreed on a deal to limit those threats.

And NPR's David Welna joins us to explain. David, here's your challenge: in as few words as possible, and without using a clip of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," define a filibuster.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, a filibuster occurs when a senator uses his or her right to object to moving ahead with a bill or nomination, insisting that more debate is needed. And it takes the votes of at least 60 senators to overcome such an objection, and dozens of hours have to transpire as well, both before and after such a vote, even if that vote succeeds in breaking the filibuster.

BLOCK: That was very well done, David.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You met the challenge. Well, there's been talk for years about limiting the power to filibuster. Is the Senate really going to do it this time?

WELNA: The Senate really is making some changes that will diminish the power to filibuster in some circumstances, but by no means are senators getting rid of the filibuster altogether. I doubt that the Republicans in the minority would have agreed even to these relatively small changes, since they are the minority and the filibuster is the minority's most potent weapon.

But Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday that if he and Republican leader Mitch McConnell could not agree on some changes to the filibuster, Democrats would sidestep the rule requiring a two-thirds majority to change the rules and make those changes with a simple 51-vote majority. And apparently Reid had the votes to do that.

BLOCK: Well, do the changes, David, really mean that more bills will eventually get to the floor, where they can be debated?

WELNA: I think so. Republicans have used filibusters, or the threat to filibuster, hundreds of times in recent years to keep legislation and nominations from even reaching the Senate floor. And under this rules change, the so-called motion to proceed to a bill or nomination cannot be blocked. But in exchange, the minority gets to offer at least two amendments.

So there actually is something in these rules changes for the minority, which right now happens to be the Republicans. But it could sooner or later be the Democrats.

BLOCK: And once the items got past the filibuster, less time would actually be devoted to debate? Is that right?

WELNA: That's right. Typically, even after 60 senators vote to end debate and go to a vote, another 30 hours of debate - which usually ends up being 30 hours of quorum calls - is required before that vote could happen.

With this rules change only one quorum call is allowed, and unless a senator who opposes the vote is able to get his colleagues to help him or her go out and hold the floor, during those 30 hours - and senators can only speak for up to an hour each - a vote would be held immediately. And that would certainly speed up what's often the glacial pace of business in the Senate.

BLOCK: And this was not the big change that reformers were looking for today, right? This is a smaller step.

WELNA: Yes, these rules changes on the filibuster do fall short of what many Democrats had hoped for. None of them wanted to do away with the filibuster altogether, lest the Senate end up being like the House where the minority has virtually no power.

But Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, for example, wanted to progressively lower the threshold of 60 votes on the matter, to eventually get to a simple majority of 51. And that did not happen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, wanted to put the onus on the minority to come up with 41 votes to sustain a filibuster, rather than make the majority find 60 votes to move ahead. That remains unchanged.

And in most cases it's still going to be possible to filibuster in absentia. That is, senators won't be required to go out and hold the floor, to keep something from coming to a vote. That was a big disappointment to some of the newer senators, who wanted to revise what they call the talking filibuster.

BLOCK: OK, the Jimmy Stewart model.

WELNA: James Stewart model.

BLOCK: NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Melissa.

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