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Harkin and Shaheen seek to change Senate filibuster rule; Reid dismisses effort

Democratic leader Harry Reid stood clear of the idea.
Democratic leader Harry Reid stood clear of the idea. (Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday dismissed the effort by some Democrats to limit filibusters, saying that the chamber's procedures were designed to prevent the majority party from unilaterally changing the rules.

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Minutes before two colleagues unveiled their proposal to weaken the tactic of delaying and blocking floor votes, Reid told reporters that he adhered to the Senate's long-standing rule that only a two-thirds majority could change the chamber's rules, including those on the filibuster. This high hurdle -- established decades ago in an effort to prevent one party from ruling the chamber with an iron fist based on a simple majority -- would require eight Republicans to join the 59 members of the Democratic caucus to alter the rules, something Reid said is not going to happen.

"I'm totally familiar with his idea," Reid said of the latest filibuster-reform resolution, from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "It takes 67 votes, and that kind of answers the question."

Harkin and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) later introduced a measure that would change Senate procedure to create a four-step process that would eventually allow a majority of 51 votes, rather than 60, for cloture -- ending debate and moving to a final vote on passage of a bill.

The number of cloture motions the majority has been forced to file has skyrocketed in the past 15 years -- by about 75 percent, according to Harkin's estimate. With more than 40 cloture votes since the start of the 111th Congress in January, this Senate is on pace to record the second-largest number of filibuster roll calls.

"In the 71 years since Hollywood filmed 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' the aim of the filibuster has been turned completely upside down," Harkin said.

Republicans, who tried to rein in filibusters when they were in the majority in 2005, have no intention of supporting any such effort this time. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) recently called that GOP effort a "dumb idea."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a freshman, has introduced a more radical rule change, along the lines of the one proposed by Republicans in 2005. It would call for the Democrat presiding over the Senate at the start of the next Congress in January, presumably Vice President Biden, to declare that the Senate is not a "continuing body" and does not have to abide by rules passed decades ago -- that it can approve new rules on a simple majority vote.

In his answer to reporters' questions on this, Reid reaffirmed his position from 2005 that a rule change takes 67 votes.


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