Ending a post-election detente from heated rhetoric, Senate leaders shredded one another Tuesday in increasingly bitter terms over a Democratic proposal to dramatically overhaul the chamber’s long-standing rules for filibusters.
The back and forth left the Senate in a partisan standoff that is ill suited for the bipartisan talks expected over the next four weeks to reach a compromise that averts more than $500 billion in annual automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that are set to kick in after New Year’s Day.
Using a parliamentary procedure to squash a filibuster.
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The heated exchanges poisoned the bipartisan atmosphere that President Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other congressional leaders had been trying to publicly promote, hoping to settle nervous financial markets warily looking at Washington to see if a massive debt deal can be hatched to avert a recession next year.
For a second straight day Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opened the chamber by engaging in a nearly hour-long feud over Reid’s emerging proposal to eliminate some filibusters. Reid accused the GOP leader of “abusing” the rules; McConnell accused the Democrat of “breaking the rules to change the rules.”
Tuesday’s debate ended with McConnell repeating his vow that a Democratic rewrite of the chamber rules planned for early next year, approved without any GOP votes, would prove toxic for the hoped-for compromise on the fiscal issues.
“This is exactly the wrong way to start off on a new year and end an old year with a ton of problems that we have to deal with,” he said during the debate. “So, here we are as a result of this suggestion that we employ a nuclear option [arguing] about arcane rules changes when we ought to be sitting down together and trying to solve the nation’s huge, huge deficit and debt problems.”
The Senate leaders are in a role reversal of where they stood in early 2005. The Democrats are now — just as Republicans were then — led by a large bloc of junior senators demanding filibuster reform to speed up action in a chamber that has long boasted of being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” The issue has become the bete noire of a small-but-influential group of younger liberal commentators, just as fervent conservative activists stoked the effort to choke off filibusters then.
Reid’s proposal, which he has only sketched out briefly in public, would eliminate the filibuster vote that is needed to formally begin debate on legislation. He would allow for a final filibuster vote, thus making the chamber run more efficiently.
A still-undefined portion of his proposal would mandate that if legislation does not get the required 60 votes to end filibusters, the 40-something senators in the minority would have to maintain a “talking filibuster” akin to the version of the 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Reid and his aides will not say how such a requirement would work — whether senators would be required to speak all day and night as the senators did in the movie.