How Democrats learned to stop worrying and love filibuster reform

Earlier this week, Sen. Harry Reid was calling for its reform. Now, Democrats are coming around. Here's why

By Alex Seitz-Wald

Published November 30, 2012 4:45PM (EST)

                          (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

How far we’ve come. This week, the White House endorsed reforming the filibuster and no one batted an eyelash. Of course the president supported filibuster reform, the entire Democratic establishment was already on board!

But just two years ago, senior Democrats were saying things like this: "I'm totally opposed to the idea of changing the filibuster rules. I think that's foolish.” And: “I’m so vehemently opposed to the ideas to fundamentally change the rules of the Senate.” That was Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who really hated the filibuster, but there were others.

“I think as torturous as this place can be, the cloture rule and the filibuster is important to protect the rights of the minority... My inclination is no,” Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor told The Hill's Alexander Bolton when asked about reform in 2010.

“I think we should retain the same policies that we have instead of lowering it... I think it has been working,” added Hawaii Democrat Daniel Akaka.

“It’s been 60 for a long, long time. I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules...the bigger problem is getting people to work together,” said Montana Democrat Jon Tester.

“It won’t happen...probably not,” added California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Though it’s still unclear if they’ll have the votes, real filibuster reform is now closer to reality than ever. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, the White House, and other top Democrats have come around.

In 2010, the last time filibuster reform was on the front burner, it was just a small band of mostly freshmen senators agitating for change. The most promising blueprint for reform was to use a constitutional provision that allowed the Senate to change its rules on the first day in session with just 51 votes, instead of the normal 67. That vehicle was the brainchild of New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, while Oregon's Jeff Merkley crafted the payload: A requirement that senators actually speak on the Senate floor while filibustering.

The procedural move was untested and filibuster change controversial, so some Democrats stayed away, including, most importantly, Reid. "I'm totally familiar with his idea," Reid said of a 51-vote filibuster-reform plan. "It takes 67 votes, and that, kind of, answers the question." In January of 2011, Merkley's bill went down 49-46, not even meeting the special 51 vote threshold.

So how did we get from there to here? We asked Merkley.

For one, he said, the Senate has gotten much much worse. "The two years of frustration -- one of the worst legislative sessions in the history of the United States -- creates enormous momentum for saying enough is enough,” he told Salon.

Last year, Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” to limit the filibuster in lieu of real reform, but it quickly proved to be mostly meaningless. Proven wrong,  Reid, to his credit, apologized to Udall and Merkley on the Senate floor this May. “These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t. They were right. The rest of us were wrong -- or most of us, anyway. What a shame.” Reid is now leading the Democratic effort to reform the rule.

Merkley also said that the American people are simply more aware of the problem than they used to be. The Senate, with its Democratic supermajorities and constant Republican filibusters, was the epicenter of politics for the first two years of the Obama administration. That focus helped educate Americans, most of whom were probably unaware of the chamber's arcane rules. Writers like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein also deserve credit for pounding away at the filibuster before most people even knew what it was.

“I’ve never seen a process issue so resonate with my public back home,” Merkley said. “I can’t tell you how many colleagues have come up to me and said, ‘the single issue that I get the strongest response on -- the single top issue -- is talking about fixing the broken Senate by fixing the broken filibuster.’”

Meanwhile, many of the Democrats who opposed reform have left the Senate and been replaced by anti-filibuster reformers. All seven Democrats elected to the Senate this year have pledged to support reform -- Maine’s Angus King even made it a central plank of his campaign. And without Dodd, who led a one-man crusade against reform and had the clout to make it matter, there's no one left to lead the anti-reform forces.

At the same time, the value of parochialism has gone down, depressing the value of the filibuster along with it. The problem with trying to reform the rule is that while it's bad for the caucus, it’s good for the individual senator interested in leveraging power beyond their single vote. Sometimes this is done for ideological reasons, but often it's for horse trading and pork barreling. So when bringing home the bacon fell out of style with voters in the mid 2000s, the filibuster became less useful politically. This, and the growing popularity of the “Washington is broken” narrative, helps explain why so many Democrats who came in after 2006 support reform.

Defenders of the filibuster hold up the Senate's inefficiency as a totem of its uniqueness. But Merkley said it doesn't have to been this way, as he saw firsthand as a 19-year old intern in the Senate. “It was all simple majority, there was no posturing for a camera,” he said. “But what I saw when I came back four years ago is a Senate in complete dysfunction.” That change, he said, is what made him want to fix things.


Alex Seitz-Wald

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Christopher Dodd Democrats Filibuster Filibuster Reform Harry Reid Jeff Merkley U.s. Senate