Younger senators take aim at old Senate rules

By Paul Kane
Saturday, March 27, 2010

As the battle over health care raged for 15 months, no institution saw its reputation battered quite as much as the U.S. Senate.

Jousting over parliamentary maneuvers and partisan acrimony dominated the headlines as the nation fixated on the debate over President Obama's top domestic initiative. But behind that struggle, other signs of institutional strife were abundant.

A nominee to the federal bench took nine months to win confirmation on a 99 to 0 vote. One senator held up dozens of nominations over a parochial dispute. And on Wednesday, one of the most basic functions of the chamber -- committee hearings -- ground to a halt.

Faced with what they're calling a "broken" system, a band of Senate Democratic newcomers are vowing to change the way the world's greatest deliberative body does business. These "young turks" -- "young" being relative in a body in which 60 is considered middle-aged -- are pushing to revamp the decades-old rules that govern the Senate.

Their targets include long-held senatorial courtesies such as the "hold" and the seniority system that awards chairmen's gavels solely on tenure. Ultimately, some want to modify or eliminate the most potent of all senatorial weapons: the filibuster.

"The more the American people understand the system's broken, the more the people are going to support rules reform," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), 61, who was elected in 2008.

Senate elders have no intention of letting their power slip away easily.

Calling the newcomers' approach "grossly misguided," Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who is 92 and the longest-serving lawmaker in the history of Congress, said the Senate is designed to protect the rights of all, not just those who won the last election.

"Extended deliberation and debate -- when employed judiciously -- protect every senator, and the interest of their constituency, and are essential to the protection of the liberties of a free people," Byrd, who was first elected in 1958, wrote in a letter to colleagues last month.

Trent Lott, a former majority leader, dismissed this latest effort as the work of "young and hot-blooded" senators who cannot see the consequences of their actions. "Be careful of what you do -- you could have it used against you," the Mississippi Republican said, predicting that the GOP will be back in the majority in the near future.

Many insiders note that some leaders of the effort, including Udall and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), are former House members, governors or holders of other statewide executive offices, not accustomed to the Senate's slower pace.

Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), elected in 2006 after a stint in the House, said his light-bulb moment came when Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) placed a blanket "hold" on dozens of President Obama's nominees to agencies because of an unrelated dispute over a military funding matter in his state.

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