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A Bad Option to Take

By Charles McC. Mathias
Thursday, May 12, 2005

It's not difficult to understand the feeling of frustration that seizes a majority in the United States Senate when it cannot instantly work its will. I know, because I felt that way during the years when filibusters blocked progress in the great fight for civil rights. A two-thirds vote of the Senate was needed to invoke cloture and force an up-or-down vote. We who backed civil rights legislation wanted action, which would have meant abolishing the filibuster entirely.

At that point Sen. James Pearson of Kansas, a civil rights advocate, blew the whistle and asked for a timeout. He had been giving some thought to the fact that there was a positive side to deliberative debate, even at the cost of some delay. He proposed a compromise that set the necessary votes for cloture at 60 instead of 67. Pearson's wisdom prevailed, and the rule was changed in 1975 to allow cloture with only 60 senators agreeing.

Ever since then, this arrangement has served to restrain impetuous actions and to promote progress. It should be allowed to continue to do so.

Republican senators in the 109th Congress are contemplating a parliamentary maneuver that would in effect abolish the filibuster and make Senate procedures more like those of the House of Representatives. Not without reason, it is called the "nuclear option."

But Senate Republicans might do well to ponder for a moment the fate of Democrats in the 96th Congress (1979-80), the last time the congressional leadership seriously tried to tamper with Senate rules.

The Senate majority of the time had developed a fondness for "majority rule" and "up-or-down votes." It had little use for minority opinion. It was preparing to use political muscle to curtail the legislative filibuster by fiat, an action comparable in many ways to what the Republican leadership now contemplates with respect to the filibuster of nominations.

At the time, there were 58 Democrats, three more senators than the Republicans currently have. Furthermore, as is the case with the current Senate leadership, it was unimaginable to the Democrats that their party would ever lose control. After all, a brilliant incumbent Democratic president was being challenged by a "grade- B movie actor."

A few months later, however, the Democrats were out of power both in the White House and the Senate.

The lesson? In the end, Democrats were glad they had not destroyed the historical nature of the Senate to accommodate the legislative exigencies of the moment.

The Senate is not a parliamentary speedway. Nor should it be. It is an institution where any senator can demand to be heard . . . and can require a vote on his or her ideas.

Make no mistake about it: If the Senate ever creates the precedent that, at any time, its rules are what 51 senators say they are -- without debate -- then the value of a senator's voice, vote and views, and the clout of his state, will be diminished.

The writer is a former Republican senator from Maryland.

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