Correction to This Article
A graphic with the article about moves to change Senate rules on filibusters misstated the duration of a filibuster by William Proxmire (D- Wis.) on a 1981 bill to raise the debt ceiling. It lasted 16 hours, 12 minutes, not 6 hours, 12 minutes.

Some Democrats seek change in filibuster rules, but others are wary

In November 2003, cots were set up in a room at the Capitol for senators to sleep on in case of a filibuster.
In November 2003, cots were set up in a room at the Capitol for senators to sleep on in case of a filibuster. (Ray Lustig/the Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chuckled as he recently reflected on his effort, five years ago, to change nearly century-old filibuster rules.

"God, that was a dumb idea," McConnell said.

Back in 2005, McConnell had "majority" in his leadership title, and Republicans -- confident about their majority status -- pushed unsuccessfully to obliterate filibusters of judicial nominees. Now the shoe is on the other foot.

A growing number of Democrats, from senatorial veterans such as Vice President Biden to freshman Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), are calling for a rules change that would transform the culture of long and sometimes tedious debate in the world's greatest deliberative body.

But these nascent efforts to curb the use of filibuster face resistance from Senate elders with long memories, who know that political winds can take today's large majority and create tomorrow's minority. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has not scheduled any debate on the issue.

First in 1917 and then in 1975, the Senate formally set up rules for "cloture motions," the name given to the parliamentary device to shut down debate. It requires the affirmative votes of 60 sitting senators.

The Constitution cites only five requirements for Senate supermajorities, including impeachment convictions of presidents, but allows the House and Senate to set their own rules. Under long-standing resolutions, the Senate considers itself to be a "continuing body" whose parliamentary rules remain in effect unless a two-thirds supermajority votes to change them.

The more authoritarian House, whose entire membership stands for election every two years, sets its rules at the start of each Congress by a majority vote.

Last Thursday's swearing-in of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) ended the filibuster-proof majority that Democrats had held since July. This means all 59 members of the Democratic caucus would need the support of at least eight GOP senators to change filibuster rules, a tall order not likely to occur anytime soon. It also means that Republicans have the minimum number of votes, 41, needed to block President Obama's agenda.

Moments after administering the oath to Brown, Biden held court with reporters outside the Senate chamber, in which he had served for 36 years. He said he has tasked his staff to study the constitutional history of filibusters, to determine what steps could be taken.

"I've never seen a time when it's become, sort of, standard operating procedure," Biden said. "You want to get anything done, you have to have a supermajority. And I really mean this, unrelated to whether or not Barack and I are sitting down in the West Wing now. Any president in the future having to move through anything he or she wants, requiring a supermajority, it's not a good way to do business."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has offered a resolution that would do away with filibusters in a four-step process, first requiring 60 votes and scaling down to a 51-vote majority for passage of any bill.

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