Pondering Senate Democrats' Filibuster Strategy

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NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr seeks to understand why Democrats refuse to invoke the so-called "nuclear option" to prevent filibusters in the Senate.

DANIEL SCHORR: When the whim of a single senator can deny health care for 30 million Americans the time has come to end the tyranny of the minority.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: Beating back the effort to undermine the 60-member block that's needed to fend off a filibuster has been a most unseemly spectacle. First, Senator Lieberman, then Senator Nelson held the Senate bill hostage while they exacted their conditions. One of Nelson's conditions was that the federal government relieve Nebraska of its financial obligations under an expanded Medicaid program for the poor. The shared obligation has been at the heart of the Medicaid program since its inception in 1965.

At the bottom of what makes the legislative process almost dysfunctional is the filibuster. The ability of a minority, even a minority of one, to stop action indefinitely by what is called extended debate. The champion filibusterer was undoubtedly Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who in 1957, held forth for more than 24 hours fighting the civil rights bill. In recent times, the filibuster has become so institutionalized that it's only necessary to signify the intention without actually holding forth on the Senate floor. A senator can put a hold on a piece of legislation or a nomination.

On occasion the frustrated majority has threatened to invoke what is called the nuclear option: a change in Senate rules that would require only a simple majority to overcome a filibuster. And so why don't the Democrats do it? Why do they leave themselves at the mercy of a minority? Until now the majority has been reluctant to end a venerable practice that it may want when it becomes a minority. But now the stakes for the nation are too high. A single senator has too much power to obstruct. A handful of senators can bog down the whole legislative process. It is time to restore majority rule as intended by our Constitution.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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