Senate Democrats Propose Filibuster Changes
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A group of Democratic senators trying to reform the practice of filibustering is expected to act on Wednesday. That is the first day of the new Congress and on that day and only that day, the Senate rules can be changed by a simple majority.
So, for Senator Tom Udall and his colleagues, it's Wednesday or never, at least for the next two years. Senator Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, insists that he does not want to do away with the filibuster. Instead, he wants to rewrite the rules for when and how it's used. For one, a filibuster could still be used to hold up the final vote on a bill, but it could not be used earlier to block debate entirely. What's more, if Senator Udall gets his way, the act of filibustering would once again require some effort.
Senator TOM UDALL (Democrat, New Mexico): A filibuster, as it is understood by the American people - and, I think, senators that have served a long time - is a way of expressing your opinion. And what we've turned it into is, you file a filibuster and you go home. And so what we want to do is, basically, if 41 senators vote for more debate, we'd go to more debate. And it's what I would call a talking filibuster.
And so in the simplest terms, it's bringing a filibuster back to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." You stand up, and you have to speak on the issue you really care about.
SIEGEL: But would that mean in practice that - let's say a senator placed a hold on a nomination, say, for an ambassadorship or for a deputy secretary of an agency. In order to oppose a vote on that, the senator and a few of his colleagues would actually hold the floor and talk?
Sen. UDALL: Well, there are two reforms here. One has to do with secret holds. So we're going to make secret holds transparent. We're going to make a senator own his hold and basically, bring those out into the open. The other part of your question really goes to, can you filibuster a nomination? And you can still filibuster a nomination under the rules changes that we're proposing.
SIEGEL: The retiring Ohio Republican senator, George Voinovich, said here last week that Democrats are shortsighted to do this because he thinks you'll probably be in the minority in two years, and that you won't be able to influence outcomes with the very rules that you're hoping to change. You'll wish you had the filibuster, he said, by that time.
Sen. UDALL: Well, as you mentioned earlier, we aren't changing the actual filibuster. We're modifying around the edges. We're making more transparency. We're trying to do this in a bipartisan way. We're trying to protect minority rights. We're trying to make sure that the minority can amend. That's one of the big Republican complaints, is that they don't get the amendments that they want.
And so we're hoping to structure something that's fair to all the parties. But I think we really need to look hard at the rules that allow the minority to block the majority from governing.
SIEGEL: Is your proposed rule to guarantee the minority the right to bring their amendments to the floor, is that a tacit admission that the past couple of years have not only been about a Republican obstruction through filibusters, but the complaint that otherwise, they haven't been able to do anything? They haven't been able to amend bills as they would like to.
Sen. UDALL: Well, I think what it's a tacit admission of is, we've had real warfare when it comes to these rules. And it doesn't matter who's in the majority or who's in the minority; we've had a situation where there's been abuse of the rules. Now, I will say, the last two years, if you just count up filibusters, have set a record.
We're, in fact, in a constant state of filibuster. There were 89 petitions that were filed to break filibusters in the last two years. Lyndon Johnson, when he was the majority leader from 1954 to 1961, only moved to cut off debate once.
SIEGEL: Well, Senator Udall, thanks a lot for talking with us.
Sen. UDALL: Thank you, a real pleasure. Take care.
SIEGEL: Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, spoke to us from Santa Fe.
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