Senate filibuster faces federal court challenge

December 10, 2012

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), photographed in his office on Capitol Hill. He is part of a federal court challenge to the Senate filibuster. (Nikki Kahn/Post)

Even as Democrats are pushing to change the rules of the Senate, a federal court plans to consider a legal challenge to the chamber’s rules Monday.

Four House Democrats and the nonpartisan political reform group Common Cause are suing to end the use of the filibuster, calling it “an accident of history,” and unconstitutional “because they are inconsistent with the principle of majority rule.”

The Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Keith Ellison (Minn.), Hank Johnson (Ga.), John Lewis (Ga.) and Mike Michaud (Maine), are joined by three other challengers, Erika Andiola, Celso Mireles and Caesar Vargas, who Common Cause says are being “denied a path to American citizenship” because of repeated filibusters of legislation that would grant young people brought to the United States illegally an opportunity to apply for citizenship. 

In court papers, the group argues that the filibuster “replaces majority rule with rule by the minority” by requiring at least 60 senators to vote to end debate on a bill.

Between 1840 and 1900, there were 16 filibusters. Between 2009 and 2010, there were more than 130, according to Senate records. Currently Senate Democrats need to meet a 60-vote threshold on virtually every piece of legislation, making it difficult — most Democrats would say impossible — to advance legislation sought in recent years by President Obama.

Federal courts have tossed out legal challenges to Senate rules in the past and Monday’s court hearing in Washington is meant to consider a motion by Senate lawyers to dismiss the case. In court papers, Senate lawyers argue that to take up the case would be to “do what no court has ever done — inject the judicial branch into the Senate’s internal deliberations and usurp the Senate’s power to determine its own rules and procedures.”

The Constitution’s speech or debate clause — that “any Speech or Debate in either House, they [lawmakers] shall not be questioned in any other Place” — also bars lawsuits challenging legislative activity, Senate lawyers said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed in recent days to change Senate rules governing filibusters when a new session of Congress opens next month. Reid and fellow Democrats have been weighing whether to attempt to change the rules using a mere majority of 51 votes — rather than subjecting new rules to the higher 60 vote margin.

After hinting at the changes for months, Reid elevated his rhetoric last week saying that “We’re going to change the rules. We cannot continue in this way.”

But Republicans — who called for a rules change back in 2005 when they controlled the chamber — now say that the filibuster preserves the rights of the minority and note that Democrats supported its use when they were in the minority. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has dubbed talk of a rules change the “nuclear option” and has vowed to grind Senate operations to a halt if Democrats move forward — a move that might even block the completion of committee assignments for new senators.

The case set for consideration Monday at U.S. District Court in Washington is called Common Cause et.al v Biden et.al.

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Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Ed O'Keefe | December 10, 2012