On Thursday evening, the U.S. Senate passed a new set of rules designed to reform the filibuster. While many on the left are complaining that the rule changes do not go far enough, many on the right are calling it a shameful act. How could the same provision be viewed so differently? Because of what each were measuring.
The rule changes are subtle, but do address one of the lingering issues of the Senate: that a single person can cause a complete impasse and force the Senate to grind to a halt without any penalty. In the last congress, the Senate eliminated the secret hold, where a single senator could halt legislation without revealing who they are. However, all they got rid of was the anonymity. This reduced, but not eliminated, the holdup. The largest offender for this kind of hold was Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has blocked hundreds of bills through his obstruction. The rule change, while leaving the filibuster itself mostly intact, would eliminate this holding ability through a process by which only 16 people would be needed to bring a measure to the floor, half from each party including a member of the leadership. As a result, the hold, which accounted for a large percentage of the blocked legislation in the Senate, would be effectively neutered. Another element of the rule change alters how the Senate handles pieces submitted from the House. Now, such measures can be blocked just as any other Senate bill. The new rules change how House measures are handled by the Senate. A vote must be taken, to either take the measure as is, to amend it, to request a joint committee with the House to work on it, or someone can file a cloture motion; but it can only be held up to a maximum of two hours under the new rules, after which the Senate must vote, move it to committee, or amend.
When asked why the more progressive measures to reform the filibuster were not taken, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put it simply to the Washington Post:
I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold. With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.
This, of course, is different from Reid’s earlier position, which makes us wonder why. His answer above however gives us the hint… it is the House.
Reid is playing politics. These changes give House-passed bills a special provision to bring them to the floor for a vote, while continuing the ability to filibuster Senate-developed measures. Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged not to allow filibusters against Senate-originated bills should the minority be allowed to submit amendments, a long-standing argument. Reid is, in effect, giving the GOP enough rope to hang themselves. With the GOP in control of the House, he knows no progressive-minded policies will pass regardless of what the Senate does. By giving the House a quick-pass, now the House’s bills will be put front and center, and broadcast to the nation, before the critical 2014 midterm elections. If the GOP filibusters measures after they are given what they want, the right to propose amendments, then in the midterms these same senators, such as Mitch McConnell who is up for re-election, will find the fact that they are dishonorable and dishonest put front and center into their campaigns. Keeping the sitting filibuster now becomes a test of moral character.
The Republicans in the Senate, failing to pull together a policy or program, have come to use the filibuster as a crutch to compensate for a lack of policy. Reid has now turned it into a poison pill, and is daring them to swallow it. Note the key phrase in his statement, “at this time.” Reid knows that reform will happen. Doing it now would do little good; the House is still in GOP hands and would block any progress in the Senate. But not doing it now gives the Democrats a strong lever with which to flip the House and expand their control in the Senate, in 2014. Reid is playing a long-term strategy, one which looks well-poised to deliver the progressive, liberal, congress which the United States has needed to recover from decades of conservative damage.
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