What's the point of the Senate?

After more than a year of fighting for real reform, it will still take 60 votes to pass just about anything

By Steve Kornacki
January 25, 2013 6:13PM (UTC)
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President Obama won widespread praise from the left for his inaugural address on Monday, offering a vigorous defense of the safety net, social equality, and liberal values in general. But Thursday produced a reminder of just how difficult it will be for the president to match his rhetoric with substantive second-term achievements.

Presented with demands from progressive activists – and more than a few members of the chamber – that they use a simple majority vote to overhaul the Senate’s filibuster rules, Democratic leaders balked and settled instead for a compromise that will produce, at best, cosmetic changes to the way the Senate does business. It was enough to prompt Iowa’s Tom Harkin, a veteran senator and outspoken advocate for major filibuster reform, to say that Obama “might as well take a four-year vacation.”


Harkin surely spoke those words in haste, but his frustration is understandable. Republicans have used the filibuster to turn the Senate into a de facto 60-vote body. It was the key tool they deployed in 2009 and 2010 to stall and water down Obama’s agenda, back when Democrats enjoyed robust majorities in both legislative chambers but (except for a few months) fell short of the magic 60-vote mark in the Senate. With Republicans grabbing control of the House in 2010 and retaining it last fall, the filibuster itself is no longer as essential to Republican obstruction efforts, but they continue to use it at record levels.

The hope for reformers wasn’t to eliminate the filibuster completely and to turn the Senate into a House-style, majority rule body. That may be the ultimate objective for some, but for now, the focus was on measures like forcing filibustering senators to actually hold the Senate floor and talk – as opposed to current practice, which allows the mere threat of a filibuster to kill legislation. Another possibility was forcing those seeking to filibuster to muster 41 votes in order to go forward, rather than placing the burden on the majority to produce 60 votes to end a filibuster. More than anything, the goal was to demonstrate that reform – real reform – was possible. That, in turn, would either clear the way for more significant changes in the future or force Republicans to reconsider their behavior, lest more severe reforms be enacted.

It’s unclear why exactly Majority Leader Harry Reid opted not to pursue reforms like this. It may simply be that there are too many institutionalists on the Democratic side – long-serving senators who cherish the tradition of the filibuster and the power it gives them as individuals. There may also have been fear among Democrats of the tables being turned the next time Republicans gain control of the chambers, with the GOP using a simple majority vote to tweak the rules to its liking. “I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid told the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein on Thursday.


By itself, this won’t derail Obama’s second term agenda. Even with the threat of a Republican filibuster, the president was able to secure passage a few weeks ago of a fiscal cliff deal that raised income tax rates. And, as Greg Sargent reported Thursday, there are signs that red state

Democrats are working with Republicans in the chamber on legislation that could tighten gun background check procedures; that would be a significant achievement if it were to pass. Immigration reform will also be on the table this year, with (some) Republicans desperate to improve their party’s image problem with Latino voters – and, perhaps, ready to sign on to a plan being developed by Sen. Marco Rubio. There are also ways for Obama to go around Congress in pursuit of his agenda.

But Thursday was the latest affirmation of just how broken the Senate has become. The Founders surely never imagined that a three-fifths majority would be the standard requirement for passing legislation in the upper chamber, and for most of American history it wasn’t. But filibuster use skyrocketed in 1993, when Republicans found themselves locked out of the White House and big Democratic congressional majorities. And it spiked even higher when they found themselves in the same situation after the 2008 election. A destructive new norm for minority party behavior has been established, and nothing in Thursday’s agreement will do anything to change it.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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