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Failed Filibuster Reform Threatens Legislative Agenda

Despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (Nev) repeated pronouncements that the Republican stranglehold on the Senate’s filibuster could no longer be tolerated, that is exactly the final outcome of recent reform efforts. With the success of important Obama legislative initiatives like depending on a Democratic Senate for enactment, what was Harry Reid thinking? Reid’s stunning flip in favor of retaining the most egregious elements of the Republican filibuster clearly jeopardizes the President’s legislative agenda.

Since the 2010 Congressional election when Senate Democrats lost their 60th vote to Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the minority Republicans played hardball requiring a 60 vote majority to bring any legislation to the Senate floor for a vote. Even with a clear advantage of 59 – 41 votes, Senate Democrats remained inexplicably unable to assert their legislative resolve as the business of running the government fell into disarray and public support for Congress dropped to historic lows.

As recently as the day after the 2012 election which kept the Senate majority in Democratic hands (56-44), Reid indicated that the filibuster rules were being abused by Republicans and that he would act to change them. With that encouragement, reform-minded Senators Tom Udall (NM) and Jeff Merkley (Ore) took up the banner as they had two years ago to require that any Senator who wanted to filibuster a bill must personally appear on the Senate floor to defend their filibuster and to inform the country why their filibuster was needed to stop what they considered to be an ill-conceived act. The current rules allow any Senator to ‘hold’ a bill without having to be publicly identified or to provide any explanation for that hold.


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Yet given public anger at Congressional gridlock and the Senate’s inability to function as Republicans brazenly brought public business to a near-halt, last week Reid formalized a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky) by stating that he was “not ready to get rid of the 60 vote threshold.”

What is unfathomable is Reid’s disregard for improving the Senate’s stature or making it an efficient, effective legislative body to assure passage of the President’s most important legislative issues. Yet to be explained is why the Udall-Merkley proposal could not muster a simple majority of 51 Democratic votes for adoption or why every Democrat in the Senate voted (86-9) to adopt the Reid McConnell watered -down ‘reform.’ Only Senator Bernie Sanders (Vt) and 8 ultra-conservative Republicans were in opposition. It is with no small irony that the vote to continue the requirement for a Super-Majority of 60 votes was adopted with the requirement of 60 votes.

Even as Republicans remain mired in a disconnect from political reality and despite reports of a bi-partisan agreement on an immigration reform ‘blueprint’, there is little reason to expect that the party of Lincoln will not continue to effectively stonewall every reasonable legislative initiative addressing the country’s most critical problems. And as Senate Democrats continue to stumble into an era of lost principles, there will be no one to blame but themselves.

Renee Parsons

Renee Parsons

Renee Parsons has been a member of the ACLU’s Florida State Board of Directors and president of the ACLU Treasure Coast Chapter. She has been an elected public official in Colorado, an environmental lobbyist with Friends of the Earth and staff member of the US House of Representatives in Washington D.C.

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