In 2007, when Jeff Merkley was considering a run for the Senate from Oregon, he met privately with Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. Merkley suggested to the two Dem leaders that the Senate needed to reform the filibuster — having watched both parties, including Dems in 2005, abuse it so badly that it was rendering the Upper Chamber dysfunctional.
“Harry Reid grabbed his head with both hands and proceeded to explain that the problem was not the rules but the behavior, and that we needed to return to the norms of the past,” Merkley told me by phone today.
That meeting may have been the genesis of a long tale that culminated this afternoon, six years later, when Reid finally went nuclear and changed the rules by simple majority — after a years-long campaign in which Merkley and other Senate liberals were instrumental.
The meeting underscores two important things about what happened today. First, for liberal reformers who have long wanted to dilute the filibuster’s grip on the Senate, this has never really been about partisanship. And second, it took literally years of pushing by reformers before the proper conditions were created to overcome objections to reform by the institution’s traditionalists.
Republicans have angrily denounced what happened today as a partisan power grab by Obama and Democratic leaders eager to help the president impose his agenda on the country by fiat. But while it’s true hypocrisy has been rampant around the filibuster among leaders on both sides, the truth, as Merkley says above, is that for liberals like him, the genesis of reform predates the Obama presidency. Liberal reformers have long said they don’t believe a Republican president should face such obstructionism in keeping government functioning.
“Neither a Democratic president or a Republican president should face this level of obstructionism in exercising their Constitutional responsibility,” Merkley told me. “They have a right to get an up or down vote on staffing the administration and on judges. Now a Republican president of the future will not face this unacceptable obstacle, either.”
The basic principle that has been upheld today, Merkley says, is this: “You can’t have a minority of one legislative branch systematically undermining the judicial or executive branch.” Merkley favors reforms that would make it harder for the minority to filibuster legislation but would not eliminate that power.
Back in 2011, when Merkley and other liberals managed to force an initial vote on filibuster reform, it was not clear Democrats would hold the White House or the Senate in the next year’s elections. That vote failed — a sign the institutionalists still held sway. After Obama won in 2012, Senate liberals again tried to force reform but institutionalist reluctance to change the rules by simple majority won out, resulting in a toothless deal that didn’t solve anything.
Then Republican filibustering of nominees (to the CFPB and NLRB) got so bad that Senate Dem leaders genuinely threatened to go nuclear, forcing GOP capitulation. The temporary deal reached only led to the filibustering of judicial nominees that resulted in today’s outcome, which was precipitated by Reid’s realization that Dems had no other choice if they wanted the Senate to function.
Dem leaders had to be pushed to this point, but from the point of view of liberals, they did the right thing. “The filibuster has been used to wage continuous warfare on the presidency,” Merkley said. “The Senate said today that’s not acceptable. A huge thank you to the leadership team.”