Wonkblog: Filibuster

Wonkbook: Harry Reid’s bid to save the Senate

Wonkbook: Harry Reid’s bid to save the Senate

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas. But a bit over 52 years ago today, Kennedy changed American politics forever.

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Everything you need to know about Thursday’s filibuster change

Everything you need to know about Thursday’s filibuster change

In the wake of GOP filibusters of all three of President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Senate Thursday changed its rules to bar filibusters against all judicial nominations (except those for the Supreme Court) and all executive branch nominations. Here's what you need to know.

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The world’s leading filibuster expert on what happened today and what to expect next.

The world’s leading filibuster expert on what happened today and what to expect next.



Gregory Koger is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. He has written numerous articles about the filibuster, and literally wrote the book on the subject. We talked on the phone Thursday afternoon; a lightly edited transcript follows.

So, uh, big day for you huh?

[Laughs] Once upon a time, even my fellow Congress scholars said, "That's kind of a stupid topic, who cares about how a simple majority could hypothetically change the rules of the Senate?"

What did you make of the specific way in which the filibuster for nominees was abolished?

In a paper I'm writing with Sergio Campos, we lay out five illustrative options for how a majority could work its will. It's not exhaustive, because there are dozens of ways you could do this. What the Democrats did today was our option four. You bring up something, have a cloture vote, and after you lose say, "It takes a simple majority to win this one." We're not the only people who had this idea but we did anticipate this possibility.

The change was limited to executive nominations and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations. How did that limitation come about? Who decided upon it?

It was in the nature of the objection that Harry Reid raised in the first place. They had the floor debate on the nominee, and the cloture vote, and then the chair's decision is announced that cloture was not invoked, and Harry Reid raises his objection to the ruling of the chair and says he objects because it only takes a simple majority to invoke cloture on all executive nominations, and all judicial nominations except the Supreme Court. So the "rule" is articulated by the objection he's raising, and the only reason that it [SCOTUS nominations] was carved out is that Harry Reid said so.

So there's nothing stopping someone in the future from raising an objection and saying cloture can be invoked on all judicial nominations, including the Supreme Court, in the future.

Or doing that for legislation.

Ezra's conclusion was that this means that the next time a big piece of legislation faces a filibuster, the whole thing is gone. Do you agree?

My point all along has been that a simple majority can achieve this sort of reform whenever you want to.

The question is whether a majority would stick together on the floor to further restrict obstruction. I would guess that some Democratic senators would not vote the same way on restricting filibusters against legislation. I can imagine, actually, a filibuster against a Supreme Court nominee being broken this way. But I'd note that, in the past, it hasn't been necessary. Clarence Thomas was confirmed by a 52 to 48 vote, which means Democrats could have filibustered him but chose not to. If there was a similarly controversial nominee in the future, I would guess he or she might also pass with 50 votes.

A lot of the frustration you hear from Democrats on the Hill isn't about filibusters per se but about the use of procedure as a stalling tactic: you filibuster both the underlying nomination and the motion to proceed to the nomination, you wait a day or two for a cloture motion to "ripen," etc. Does this change that at all?

Not directly. It is possible that Democrats frustrated enough to vote for reform today might also be frustrated enough to adopt further reforms without completely eliminating the right to filibuster.

But it's hard to make fine-tuned reforms. If you're coming up with procedural arguments, it's easier to come up with arguments to completely get rid of filibustering than to come up with parliamentary justifications for tweaking the rules to, say, shorten the ripening period. It's not easy to come up with convincing rationales for small tweaks, though honestly, a simple majority can do it if they want to.

Well, Reid didn't seem to present a principled rationale for limiting the change to non-SCOTUS nominees, so that might not be an impediment.

Right, as he was doing it, at least, there wasn't any of that chin music. It was, "Here's what we want to do and we're going to vote on it."

I suppose you could think of one if you had to, though.

Indeed. The case for executive nominees would be, "You can't elect a president and then keep him from having his own team in place." For judicial nominees, you can't make exactly the same argument but can use roughly the same reason.

Anything else notable about how this went down?

One minor note is that the Republicans didn't seem to fight very hard against it. If you go back to 1975, when there was an effort to rule the Senate was not a continuing body and change the rules by a simple majority, there was one senator from Alabama, James Allen, who fought the reformers tooth and nail, raising all kinds of complex procedural obstacles to it. Today's fight was over in an hour and a half, total. McConnell called for a revote, but there was no attempt to drag it out, which was interesting.

If nothing else, today seems to have killed the idea that you can only change the rules by majority vote on day one.

Personally, I appreciate that. I thought it was a needless straightjacket. It was an excuse for other senators not to think about this for the rest of the Congress.

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One huge effect of filibuster reform: Obama can actually fire people

One huge effect of filibuster reform: Obama can actually fire people

One important effect of Thursday's change in the Senate rules: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius can now be fired.

So can Marilyn Tavenner, director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Or Attorney General Eric Holder. Or Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Or Secretary of State John Kerry. Or really any political appointee.

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The D.C. Circuit is the court at the center of the filibuster fight. Here’s why it matters.

The D.C. Circuit is the court at the center of the filibuster fight. Here’s why it matters.

Now that Senate Democrats have abolished the filibuster for federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments, they are expected to confirm President Obama's three picks for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And that could have a big policy impact in the coming years.

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Nine reasons the filibuster change is a huge deal

Nine reasons the filibuster change is a huge deal

1. The change the Senate made today is small but consequential: The filibuster no longer applies to judicial or executive-branch nominees. It still applies to bills and Supreme Court nominations.

2. Well, technically it still applies to all bills and Supreme Court nominations. In practice, legislation that mainly uses the government's tax and spending powers can evade the filibuster using the budget reconciliation procedures. That's how George W. Bush's tax cuts passed, and how Obamacare was finished. As for the Supreme Court, it's very hard to believe that Democrats or Republicans would accept filibusters of qualified Supreme Court nominees, either. And, as Democrats proved today, they don't have to.

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It’s official: The Senate just got rid of part of the filibuster

It’s official: The Senate just got rid of part of the filibuster

That's it. The Senate finally went nuclear.

A majority of Democrats voted on Thursday to modify the Senate's rules on filibusters for the first time since 1975. From now on, judicial nominees to federal courts can be confirmed by a simple majority vote. So can the president's executive-branch nominations.

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Wonkbook: Three reasons filibuster reform might actually happen today

Wonkbook: Three reasons filibuster reform might actually happen today

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Filibuster reform might actually happen this time. In fact, it might happen today.

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Everything you need to know about the nominations fight — and why it might end the filibuster

On November 18, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered the nomination of Robert Wilkins to join the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, making him the third Obama nominee to that court to be blocked on the Senate floor in the past month. Patricia Millett's nomination was blocked on October 31, and Nina Pillard's was halted on November 12.

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How Ted Cruz’s ‘filibuster’ stacks up, in one graph

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) just finished his marathon "talking filibuster" (not technically a filibuster, because it's not really delaying a vote) of Obamacare, which started at 2:40 p.m. yesterday afternoon. If it were real, it would still only be the fourth-longest filibuster in history, according to an Associated Press tally that Josh Voorhees at Slate found. Here are its competitors:



There's a good reason Republicans hate Obama's labor board nominees

There's a good reason Republicans hate Obama's labor board nominees

For those concerned about excessive partisanship and polarization, Tuesday's Senate deal that clears the way for votes on presidential nominees is certainly a rare bit of welcome news.

But not totally.

Note what happened regarding the most controversial of the nominees, those to the National Labor Relations Board, which has been the site of an all-out war between Republican business interests and Democratic union interests for decades.

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The Senate didn't go nuclear. But, actually, it kind of did.

The Senate didn't go nuclear. But, actually, it kind of did.

This is a game of chicken," Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute told me on Monday night. "But having seen 'Rebel Without a Cause' many times, sometimes games of chicken don't go down the way you expect."

In this case, though, the game of chicken played out roughly as Harry Reid expected, or at least hoped. Today, Reid backed down from changing -- or "reinterpreting" -- the Senate's rules, which he didn't want to do anyway. In return, Republicans let Rich Cordray's nomination to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reach the Senate floor. The National Labor Relations Board will get two new nominees picked by organized labor, which means the board gets a quorum and its full powers back. Tom Perez will get a vote to lead the Department of Labor and Gina McCarthy will get a vote to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

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The Senate might go nuclear today. Here's everything you need to know.

The Senate might go nuclear today. Here's everything you need to know.

Today's the day. This afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) might finally detonate the "nuclear option" and abolish the filibuster on executive nominations. Ot maybe he won't. This morning, he says a deal might be near "that will be good for everybody." A tentative compromise has apparently been reached. Update: Richard Cordray is being confirmed as a part of the deal, so no nuclear option today. Keep reading for more background on how we got here.

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Wonkbook: 10 facts that explain the filibuster fight

Wonkbook: 10 facts that explain the filibuster fight

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

1) Before Obama, 20 executive branch nominees were filibustered. Under Obama, 16 have been filibustered. This is a statistic Reid's office likes to use. If current trends continue, they note, it's entirely possible Obama could end up seeing more of his executive-branch nominees filibustered than every other president in history combined. Reid says this shows McConnell broke the bargain he struck with Reid at the beginning of this session of Congress, in which Reid promised not to touch the filibuster if McConnell promised to treat nominations in line with the Senate's historic norms.

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One Senate staffer's theory: Mitch McConnell actually wants to get nuked

One Senate staffer's theory: Mitch McConnell actually wants to get nuked

A Senate Democratic staffer e-mails with an interesting -- and off-message -- theory:

I always thought that McConnell is actually giddy about being nuked. I know there are Rs who are concerned for the right reasons health of the institution, retribution that would make it hard to pass much of anything, etc.

But if you're McConnell wouldn't you want Reid to nuke you? It helps you raise money with the base, it means you don't have to negotiate these nominations that your base doesn't like, and it leaves the door wide open to nuke us back and worse if they take over.

I know there's this theory that McConnell and Reid are doing the dance and you reported that. And I hope that's the case. But if I were Machiavellian about things, and I sort of am, I'd want to get nuked because all it does at the moment is allow Dems to proceed with nominations. Once they're in the majority and they nuke the filibuster, then they can pass all kinds of crazy stuff. You could argue that there might be some Republican divisions that would prevent a small GOP majority from passing truly awful things, but Republicans are way better at falling into line than Democrats are, and we all know what kind of stuff the House is passing.

Reid is in an awful place and understandably frustrated, but I think McConnell gets off easy in some sense if we nuke them. He won't have to negotiate on much of anything or bridge the gaps between conservatives and the Rs who want to get stuff done. He can throw his hands up and say, well, they nuked us, so I can't stop their nominations, and he can spend more time raising money. Nuking the Rs makes McConnell's job easier, not harder.

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Mitch McConnell's problem: How can he threaten to obstruct the Senate even more?

Mitch McConnell's problem: How can he threaten to obstruct the Senate even more?

There's a reason the Senate majority rarely goes through with filibuster reform: The minority can make the aftermath hellish.

Robert Dove, who served as Senate parliamentarian from 1981 to 1987 and then from 1995 to 2002, recalls the aftermath of the 1975 filibuster reforms. "My reaction was I don't ever want to see that again. The repercussions went on for years. People felt they had been rolled, which they had, and they were going to look for holes in the rules, and they found them," Dove said. Remember, he says, "you can stall in the Senate in lots of ways besides debate."

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Wonkbook: Will Harry Reid really go nuclear?

Wonkbook: Will Harry Reid really go nuclear?

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

There are two theories of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's threat to go nuclear and limit or even eliminate filibusters against executive-branch nominees.

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Wendy Davis's rules: a guide to legislative rebellion

Wendy Davis's rules: a guide to legislative rebellion

By now, Americans are pretty familiar with filibusters. A few notable ones in the U.S. Senate have changed the procedural math such that most votes require a "filibuster-proof" majority of 60 votes to cut off debate, rather than the regular 51, causing much hand-wringing about our broken legislative process and minority power run amok.

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Here's what Amazon commenters are saying about Wendy Davis's shoes

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis had a moment in the spotlight Tuesday evening, as her 13-hour filibuster against a bill to restrict abortion rights made her an instant hero to many on the left. She also wore some awesome pink running shoes.

Now, the shoes--which were apparently comfortable enough to allow Davis to stand for those 13 hours without a break--are getting their due. The Mizuno Women's Wave Rider 16 page on Amazon has become a home for dozens of tongue-in-cheek "reviews" of a shoe that found itself entwined in abortion politics.

Here's a typical example:

The most popular thus far:

Of course, some people view the success of these shoes at outrunning patriarchy as a threat, and think you shouldn't buy them.

And then, there are the people who are not in on the joke at all and just want to tell you about their experience with Mizuno Women's Wave Rider 16 running shoes.

Read the full range of reviews, and "reviews," here.

Who is Wendy Davis?

Who is Wendy Davis?

You know, the Fort Worth Democrat who stood for eleven hours to filibuster a bill in the Texas State Senate that would place new restrictions on abortion clinics and ban the practice after 20 weeks of pregnancy? Here's what you need to know. [UPDATE: She stood long enough to kill the bill, Texas' Lieutenant Governor ruled at 3:01 a.m.]

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Everything you need to know about the nominations showdown, in one FAQ

It was funny when Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley equated Obama filling D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacancies with "court-packing." But that's not the last we're going to hear from the Senate about judicial appointments.

According to my colleague Juliet Eilperin, Obama is gearing up to appoint three more judges to the D.C. Circuit, which currently has eight confirmed judges but a total of 11 seats. If approved, Obama's new nominees would put the court at full capacity for the first time since a brief period in 2005, before John Roberts left to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The last time the court was full before that was in 1991 -- but then Clarence Thomas left to join the Supreme Court.

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How we broke the Senate without breaking any rules

How we broke the Senate without breaking any rules

There was a moment on the Senate floor on Monday when Sen. Harry Reid could've done pretty much anything he wanted. There was nothing the Republicans could've done to stop him. And he knew it. He just didn't take advantage of it.

"This afternoon, I offered a consent agreement dealing with the budget," he said. "I withdrew that because we didn't have anyone here to object, and I had an inkling that there would be an objection if a Republican were here." At that point, a Republican was there. Sen. Ted Cruz, to be exact. And he objected.

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Harry Reid had a good reason to vote against the gun bill

Harry Reid had a good reason to vote against the gun bill

On Wednesday, Harry Reid voted against the Manchin-Toomey gun bill as it failed to break the 60-vote cloture threshold to get an up-or-down vote. But he supports the bill, strongly. So, why'd he vote no?

The same thing happened a few months ago. Forty U.S. senators voted to block a final vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary. Of those, 39 were Republicans opposed to the nomination, at least for the moment. The other was Harry Reid. It wasn't that Reid opposed Hagel — far from it. Reid denounced the filibuster as "one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in my twenty-seven years in the Senate."

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Wonkbook: The gun bill failed because the Senate is wildly undemocratic

Wonkbook: The gun bill failed because the Senate is wildly undemocratic

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

The gun vote didn't fail because a couple of red-state Democrats bolted, or even because too many senators are afraid of the National Rifle Association, or even because Sen. Pat Toomey couldn't bring along more Republicans.

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What did the RandPaulibuster tell us about filibuster reform?

What did the RandPaulibuster tell us about filibuster reform?

Political scientists Sarah Binder and Jonathan Bernstein throw some cold water on the sudden outpouring of filibuster-love in the aftermath of the Randpage. As Bernstein put it:

Today's live filibuster shows again just how easy it is to hold the Senate floor for an extended period. I continue to believe that Jeff Merkley's talking filibuster suggestion is not only misguided (because, in part, it puts more emphasis on that public exhibition thing) but just wouldn't work. Essentially, Paul is willing to do this because he believes in the cause and because it plays well with his constituency. A talking filibuster showdown under Merkley would mean that every single Senator in the minority party would be fighting, the very first time they did this, for their future leverage in the Senate -- and surely that would play extremely well with the constituency they care most about.

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A great day for the filibuster, and for filibuster reform

After watching Republicans mount filibusters against three presidential appointments in the month-and-a-half since the filibuster deal, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin thinks it might be time to take another look at that compromise. "I hate to suggest this, but if this is an indication of where we're headed, we need to revisit the rules again," he said. "We need to go back to it again. I'm sorry to say it because I was hopeful that a bipartisan approach to dealing with these issues would work."

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Yes, Chuck Hagel is being filibustered. Yes, that's unprecedented.

Yes, Chuck Hagel is being filibustered. Yes, that's unprecedented.

Thursday night, a vote was called to invoke cloture on Chuck Hagel's nomination to become secretary of defense, and thus move to a final confirmation vote. The cloture vote failed. Only 58 senators voted yes, short of the 60-vote cloture threshold, with Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joining a unified Democratic caucus in voting yes. The rest of Hagel's former Republican Senate colleagues voted against him. Given that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) voted no for procedural reasons (it allows him to bring another cloture vote in the future), that puts Hagel only one vote short of breaking a filibuster.

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Sen. Angus King on filibuster reform and life as a Senate independent

Sen. Angus King on filibuster reform and life as a Senate independent

Angus King is the junior United States senator for Maine. An independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats for committee purposes, he previously served as the state's governor from 1995 to 2003, and succeeded Olympia Snowe at the start of this year.

Filibuster reform was a key plank in his Senate campaign platform, and he was involved in the negotiations that culminated in the first changes to the filibuster since the 1970s (albeit less than Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley, the two senators leading the charge, wanted). He called me from his house in Maine on Friday; a lightly edited transcript follows.

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Sen. Jeff Merkley on the filibuster deal: 'There are two pieces I'm excited about'

Sen. Jeff Merkley on the filibuster deal: 'There are two pieces I'm excited about'

The key senators behind the push to reform the filibuster were Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Their idea was to force "talking filibusters" in which obstructing senators would have to go to the floor of the Senate and actually talk. If they stopped talking, the filibuster is over. Reid and McConnell's deal does not include a talking filibuster, but both Merkley and Udall voted for it anyway. I spoke with Merkley Friday morning about the compromise. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion follows.

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Why filibuster reform failed, and where it might go next

A few thoughts on filibuster reform:

1. The reason there wasn't root-and-branch reform of the filibuster is that most Senate Democrats didn't want root-and-branch reform of the filibuster. "Do not underestimate how much appreciation for the filibuster there is among senators who have been in the minority of this body and have been able to hold up legislation," one Senate aide told me. "Remember, estate tax repeal got 59 votes in 2006."

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Harry Reid: 'I'm not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold'

Harry Reid: 'I'm not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold'

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have come to a deal on filibuster reform. The deal is this: The filibuster will not be reformed. But the way the Senate moves to consider new legislation and most nominees will be.

"I'm not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold," Reid (D-Nev.) told me this morning, referring to the number of votes needed to halt a filibuster. "With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn't and shouldn't be like the House."

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The last hope for filibuster reformers is Mitch McConnell?

The last hope for filibuster reformers is Mitch McConnell?

"I hope that within the next 24 to 36 hours, we can get something we agree on. If not, we're going to move forward on what I think needs to be done," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon. It's now Wednesday morning. That means we're in the filibuster endgame. And, as Reid tells it, it's all up to his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

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The date for filibuster reform: Jan. 22. Probably.

The date for filibuster reform: Jan. 22. Probably.

Technically, you need a two-thirds vote in the Senate to change any of the chamber's rules. In practice, you actually don't need a two-thirds vote in the Senate to change the rules. You can do it with 51 votes. But it's considered a bit of a rude thing to do.

The middle ground in this debate has been given the name "the constitutional option": It argues that on the first day of a new session of Congress, you only need 51 votes to change the Senate rules, as each Congress has a constitutional right to make its own rules. That's the approach various Democratic senators are taking in their effort to reform the filibuster.

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Congress tries democracy for a change!

Congress tries democracy for a change!

Here's the biggest winner in the fiscal cliff deal: majority rule.

Congressional rules reform is a subject guaranteed to make the eyes glaze over. But if you want to know Congress why gets nothing done, it is not primarily because the country is hopelessly divided or the sensible center has disappeared from the American electorate, but because neither the House nor the Senate allows a majority of its members to work their will.

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READ: John McCain's filibuster reform

READ: John McCain's filibuster reform

As the Huffington Post reported earlier today, Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin — backed up by a handful of senior senators from both parties — have been prepping a filibuster proposal meant to undercut more significant reform of the Senate rules. You can download the whole proposal here, but here are the highlights:

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Sen. Jeff Merkley's talking filibuster: How it would work

Sen. Jeff Merkley's talking filibuster: How it would work

If Senate Democrats do decide to reform the filibuster at the start of the 113th Congress, chances are they'll adopt Sen. Jeff Merkley's (D-Or.) proposal for a "talking filibuster."

The core idea is to make the actual filibuster more like the mythical filibuster of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which a single senator can hold the floor and block a bill's passage as long as he keeps talking.

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17 bills that likely would have passed the Senate if it didn't have the filibuster

17 bills that likely would have passed the Senate if it didn't have the filibuster

Arguments over the filibuster tend to devolve into relatively esoteric debates about minority rights and majority rule. But let's ground this conversation in real-world consequences: In the absence of the filibuster, what laws would have passed the Senate that didn't?

In order to limit the size of the search, we begin the clock with the 111th Congress, which began in January 2009. We're looking for bills that got more than 50 votes in the Senate but that didn't make it to the president's desk. In most cases, bills that failed due to a filibuster in the 111th Congress had already passed the House, so they would be law today. In the 112th Congress, the Republican House was less aligned with the Democratic Senate, and so passage in the Senate does not mean the bills would gave been passed into law.

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What Mitch McConnell fears

What Mitch McConnell fears

Steve Benen asks a sensible question: Harry Reid's proposed filibuster reforms are quite modest. If they pass wholesale, the 60-vote supermajority requirement will remain unchanged. So why's he so steamed?

I've asked Senate staff the same question, and I've gotten, in general, three answers.

First, moving to a "talking filibuster" is not seen as the minor tweak that some including me -- have made it out to be. True, it doesn't change the fact that the Senate is now a 60-vote institution. But it does make the life of an obstructing minority much harder. Given the size of the Republican minority, to fill a day-long filibuster, every senator would have to be up and speaking for at least half an hour, and a critical mass of minority senators would have to be in the chamber at all times. Coordinating that kind of action among 45 senators who've got fundraisers and flights and out-of-town family and who usually don't stay in Washington even for a full week at a time is no small task.

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Mitch McConnell's five biggest whoppers on the filibuster

Mitch McConnell's five biggest whoppers on the filibuster

Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell just had an heated, lengthy exchange on the floor of the Senate over Reid's intention to use the so-called "constitutional option" at the beginning of the next Congress to change the rules of the filibuster using only 51 votes.

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Is this the end for the filibuster?

Is this the end for the filibuster?

In 2008, Barack Obama promised to change the way Washington works. In 2013, we might actually see that change. But it won't be because of Obama. It will be because a critical mass of senators perhaps even including some Republicans decide enough is enough: It's time to rein in the filibuster.

The problem with a president promising to change Washington is that the presidency isn't the part of Washington that's broken. The systemic gridlock, dysfunction and polarization that so frustrate the country aren't located in the executive branch. They're centered in Congress. And one of their key enablers is Senate Rule XXII better known as the filibuster.

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Poll: Americans are over divided government

Poll: Americans are over divided government

Typically, polls show that Americans prefer divided government to single-party government. As the thinking goes, voters are skeptical of both parties and feel better knowing neither Democrats nor Republicans have that much power. 

At least, that’s what the polls used to show:



We’ll need to see a few more years of data before we can confidently say whether this is a blip or a trend. But given the past year, can you blame voters?

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How to reform the filibuster without taking a vote

How to reform the filibuster without taking a vote

Want to fix the Senate? Two former Senate aidesa Democratic staffer and a GOP-backed Senate parliamentarianhave a new book out this week suggesting reforms that wouldn’t even require a bill to pass Congress, according toRoll Call’s preview of the book.

As its title suggests, “Defending the Filibuster” maintains that the much-maligned Senate procedure is crucial to protecting the minority and insuring “stability and deliberation in government,” according to the book description.But Richard Arenberg and Robert Dove also offer some suggestions for reform around the edges. Before the Senate can debate a bill, it must pass the “motion to proceed”a vote that’s meant to be procedural but which has become increasingly politicized and subject to filibusters in recent years. In effect, rather than ensuring an opportunity to debate a bill, the filibuster is stopping the debate from happening.

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There’s too much trust in the Senate

There’s too much trust in the Senate

Quick recap: Tyler Cowen wrote that our policy outcomes reflected the declining trust voters have in the government. I argued that they reflected political gridlock, and appeared to have little evident relationship to who or what voters trusted.

Cowen’s reply, published on Tuesday, is provocative. “I view political polarization as another manifestation of lack of trust,” he writes.

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Olympia Snowe’s last act: Filibuster reform?

Olympia Snowe’s last act: Filibuster reform?

Olympia Snowe is on her way out of Congress. But before she leaves, the Maine Republican may try to do something to fix the political deadlock and dysfunction that drove her to retire in the first place.

“I’ve been sorting through the aspects, procedurally, that contribute to locking down the process,” Snowe said. First and foremost: abuse of the filibuster.

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Is the filibuster unconstitutional?

According to Best Lawyers — “the oldest and most respected peer-review publication in the legal profession” — Emmet Bondurant “is the go-to lawyer when a business person just can’t afford to lose a lawsuit.” He was its 2010 Lawyer of the Year for Antitrust and Bet-the-Company Litigation. But now, he’s bitten off something even bigger: bet-the-country litigation.

Bondurant thinks the filibuster is unconstitutional. And, alongside Common Cause, where he serves on the board of directors, he’s suing to have the Supreme Court abolish it.


(Graph: Todd Lindeman; Data: Senate.gov)
In a 2011 article in the Harvard Law School’s Journal on Legislation, Bondurant laid out his case for why the filibuster crosses constitutional red lines. But to understand the argument, you have to understand the history: The filibuster was a mistake.

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The Senate just took a big step towards filibuster reform


(Brendan Smialowski - GETTY IMAGES)
In 2010, there was an effort -- led mostly by freshmen Democratic senators like Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley -- to reform the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid squelched their campaign. Last night, he apologized to them on the Senate floor:

If there were ever a time when Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley were prophetic, it’s tonight. These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate,and we didn’t. And they were right. The rest of us were wrong -- or most of us, anyway. What a shame...

Mr. President, I am finished here, but I just want to say again, for those that are listening here or watching, Senator Udall and Senator Merkley want to do something to change the rules regarding filibuster. If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rule, because it’s been abused, abused, and abused.

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How the filibuster promotes partisanship

Perhaps it’s worth saying a little bit more about how the filibuster amplifies political polarization. After all, the conventional wisdom is that it encourages bipartisanship by giving the minority a guaranteed seat at the table.

The crucial idea here is that it is very different to kill a bill than to vote against a bill. When the minority party kills a bill, they have made the majority into a failure. And when voters perceive the majority as failing, they vote in the other guys. If you’re in the minority, there’s no faster path back to power than killing bills.

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Column: No Labels gets congressional dysfunction right


John Holman, of Denver, Colo., right, and others with the group No Labels, take part in a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 18, 2011, to urge Congress and the president to find a bipartisan solution to the fiscal crisis. (Jacquelyn Martin - Associated Press)
“No Labels.” Even the name is annoying. For one thing, it’s a label. There’s no branding quite like anti-branding, which in this case is even perched atop a slogan: “Not left. Not right. Forward.”

It reminds me of nothing so much as the cartoon character Kang’s stump speech from “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII”: “My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight I say, we must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom.”

The problem, of course, is that Americans disagree about which direction is forward. Is it toward universal health care? Or away from it? Toward policies to curb climate change? Or away from them? Toward more rights for gay and lesbian couples? Or toward a constitutional amendment enshrining the primacy of traditional marriage?

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