Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren is wasting no time in getting down to business. In a blog for The Huffington Post on Thursday, she wrote that all the things she wants to do for the people of Massachusetts will never get done “if we can’t get up-or-down votes in the Senate.” Any Senator can use the filibuster against a measure to which he/she objects and bring the chamber’s business “to a screeching halt.”
Current Senate rules allow a senator, or a series of senators, to continue speaking on the topic of their choice for as long as they want unless three-fifths of the members (60 out of a 100) vote to bring the discussion to an end. Warren was the proposed target of a Republican filibuster in 2011 when it appeared that President Obama was going to nominate her to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Forty-five senators pledged to filibuster any nominee to head the agency because they objected to its existence, and the President backed off. (Now, they have to deal with Warren as a Senator who is willing to tackle both filibuster reform and banking reform from within. File that under “unintended consequences.”)
Warren, six other newly-elected Democratic senators, and current Senator Jeff Merkley want to tackle the issue on the first day of the new Congress. While rule changes typically require a two-thirds vote, this group wants Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to initiate an action that would pass a change by a simple majority vote. The new rule would limit debate and require the senator involved in the filibuster to actually be present, speaking on the floor of the Senate, until it was over. Getting this passed by a simple majority would require utilizing a maneuver called “the nuclear option“ for its ability to sour relations between the two parties. Reid would make the move and be backed up by Vice-President Biden, who would be the chair presiding over the proceedings.
Reform has been attempted before, and recently, but some of the old-school Democrats balked, remembering they also like to use the filibuster when they are in the minority. However, a few have been won over–notably Reed–and a couple of members of the Old Guard are retiring, so prospects for success are looking a lot better.
As Elizabeth Warren wrote on Thursday:
“I learned something important in my race against Senator Brown: voters want political leaders who are willing to break the partisan gridlock. They want fewer closed-door roadblocks and more public votes on legislation that could improve their lives.”
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand agrees. Circulating an anti-filibuster petition by email to her supporters, she wrote:
“The filibuster has a role, absolutely, but it has to return to being a reasonable tool. That’s the way it was envisioned and we have the opportunity, right now, to get back to that ideal.”
On the GOP side, senators reportedly feel that this move will “poison the well” for reaching any bipartisan deals. Apparently, they don’t realize the well is already poisoned–and they didn’t hear the voters saying anything.