Senate Democrats Want To Rein In Filibusters
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, let's look at a political stalemate in this country. The Senate gets back today from a recess, and its first order of business is supposed to be jobs. But that won't happen unless at least 60 senators vote to move the bill forward. That's the number needed to overcome the minority's greatest weapon: the endless debate on a bill known as the filibuster.
Since Republican Scott Brown's recent victory in Massachusetts, Democrat's are one vote short of 60. And, as NPR's David Welna reports, some are now calling for new rules.
DAVID WELNA: When President Obama went to a retreat of Senate Democrats earlier this month, he lamented how much the Republicans have used the filibuster. More than twice as often as Democrats did when they were last in the minority. It's become, he said, an institutional problem.
President BARACK OBAMA: In the Senate, the filibuster only works if there's a genuine spirit of compromise in trying to solve problems, as opposed to just shutting the place down. If it's just shutting the place down, then its not going to work.
WELNA: Senate Republicans, not surprisingly, deny they're trying to thwart the president with filibusters. One member of the GOP leadership team, John Cornyn of Texas, says Democrats have simply been in too much of a hurry to pass controversial legislation.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): The goal of the filibuster is to cause us to slow down and to work in a bipartisan basis to come up with better ideas as opposed to trying to jam things through on a partisan basis. So I think it can have a very constructive role.
WELNA: Congressional expert Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, agrees that needing to find 60 votes can force bipartisan compromise, but he says if the recent past is prologue, even moderate Republicans seem unwilling to break ranks to help end filibusters.
Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (Political Scientist, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): The American system was not designed to move rapidly, but was designed to move. And right now because we have less than 60 members of one party; and right now because you have a minority thats decided to operate as a parliamentary minority party uniting on everything against, there is a danger of significant gridlock.
WELNA: Some Democratic senators say theyve had it with GOP filibusters. Heres Iowas Tom Harkin, the last time the Senate met.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): United States Senate cannot continue to function this way. That is why, today, along with senator from New Hampshire, Senator Shaheen, I am introducing a bill to change the standing rules of the Senate, to reform the cloture procedure in the United States Senate.
WELNA: Under cloture, 60 votes are needed to limit the wait and get to a final vote. Harkin wants to reduce that 60 votes threshold, successively, so that by the fourth time consuming vote on cloture only 51 votes would be needed as simple majority. But when majority leader Harry Reid was asked whether he backs Harkins proposal, he pointed out it takes 67 votes to change the Senates rules.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Iowa; Senate Majority Leader): I love Tom Harkin. Im totally familiar with his idea. It takes 67 votes, and that kind of answers the question.
WELNA: Some who follow the Senate closely, say Reids best option maybe to have an attention getting showdown by forcing Republicans to make good on their claim that they simply want further debate. Darrell West is with the Brookings Institution.
Mr. DARRELL WEST (Vice President and Director of Governance Studies, Brookings Institute): It maybe time to call their bluff and actually force them to filibuster so that the country can see what is happening and make a judgment on the merits of whether the filibuster actually is warranted.
(Soundbite of movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington)
Mr. JIMMY STEWART (Actor): (as Jefferson Smith) Just get up off the ground, that's all I ask. Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty.
WELNA: You may recognize that as the voice of Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. In it, he plays a senator who alone filibusters on the floor for 23 hours to try to stop a bad piece of legislation. But Congressional expert Norman Ornstein says thats not what youd see now if Republicans were forced to carry out a filibuster.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: If Harry Reid said, were bringing the place to a halt, and you got to go round the clock and youve got 40 Republicans who want to block him, they just have to have one person on the floor at any time to deny unanimous consent to move forward and to continually call for the absence of a quorum. And its the majority thatll have to show up because if theres no quorum, the Senate adjourns, and you cant get away with it.
WELNA: There maybe other ways to curb the use of filibusters. One would be for Vice President Biden, as president of the Senate, to declare that the chambers rules no longer apply. A simple majority vote could uphold such a ruling, but its not clear most Democrats would want that. They know that sooner or later they will be in the minority and in need of the filibuster.
David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.
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