Putting aside the procedural details of the big war over Senate rules yesterday, it’s important to understand the larger picture here and why what happened yesterday really matters.
The skirmish reminds us that there’s still a huge, ongoing fight that will ultimately have to be resolved. What’s at stake is whether we’ll ever strike a sane balance between majority rule and minority rights in the Senate — and more broadly, whether we’ll ever restore the ability of the Senate to function at all.
The current 60 vote Senate is a historical anomaly that had an important impact on the 111th Congress. It probably sank the public option, reduced the size of the stimulus, and in general made the government far more dysfunctional. Yesterday’s events showed that the current situation isn’t tenable, and is not likely to last very much longer. As soon as 51 Senators want it to change, it will. The odds are very good that major changes will be on the agenda the next time one party holds the White House and both chambers of Congress.
For those wanting to understand the highly technical rules interpretation that was settled yesterday, I’ll recommend a terrific post by Sarah Binder over at the Monkey Cage, and Steve Smith’s comment below her post. As Smith says, the larger context here is an ever-escalating battle between the parties over the exploitation of wrinkles in the Senate rules. The other, and perhaps more important, fight concerns the fate of the 60 vote Senate.
Remember: Throughout Senate history up until Bill Clinton, filibusters were rare and reserved for major issues. Republicans led by Bob Dole in 1993 extended the use of the filibuster to all major legislation, and then in 2009 Republicans established a true 60 vote Senate for the first time, in which all legislation and nominations were “required” to have 60 votes to pass. Democrats have fought back by finding ways to limit minority-party amendments offered.
It’s not a stable situation. Senators have always been eager to protect the rights of individual Senators, which are preserved by the filibuster and other procedural rigamarole, such as “holds.” But at this point, it’s clear that there’s no way that a solid majority will allow itself to be repeatedly “out-voted” by the minority for much longer. The only question is how long reform will take, and what kinds of reforms will happen. Perhaps the Senate will wind up simply under majority-party centralized rule like the House. Or perhaps new rules can restore some majority power while preserving the rights of individual Senators — one of the upper chamber’s strengths.
But either way, reform is coming. Yesterday the Democrats reminded everyone that reform can come quickly when 51 or more Senators strongly want it. If the Senate can’t function, majorities get disgusted, and will move to act. Soon enough, the majority will act in a very big way.