Ending a post-election detente from heated rhetoric, Senate leaders shredded one another Tuesday in increasingly bitter terms over a Democratic proposal to dramatically overhaul the chamber’s long-standing rules for filibusters.
The back and forth left the Senate in a partisan standoff that is ill suited for the bipartisan talks expected over the next four weeks to reach a compromise that averts more than $500 billion in annual automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that are set to kick in after New Year’s Day.
The heated exchanges poisoned the bipartisan atmosphere that President Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other congressional leaders had been trying to publicly promote, hoping to settle nervous financial markets warily looking at Washington to see if a massive debt deal can be hatched to avert a recession next year.
For a second straight day Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opened the chamber by engaging in a nearly hour-long feud over Reid’s emerging proposal to eliminate some filibusters. Reid accused the GOP leader of “abusing” the rules; McConnell accused the Democrat of “breaking the rules to change the rules.”
Tuesday’s debate ended with McConnell repeating his vow that a Democratic rewrite of the chamber rules planned for early next year, approved without any GOP votes, would prove toxic for the hoped-for compromise on the fiscal issues.
“This is exactly the wrong way to start off on a new year and end an old year with a ton of problems that we have to deal with,” he said during the debate. “So, here we are as a result of this suggestion that we employ a nuclear option [arguing] about arcane rules changes when we ought to be sitting down together and trying to solve the nation’s huge, huge deficit and debt problems.”
The Senate leaders are in a role reversal of where they stood in early 2005. The Democrats are now — just as Republicans were then — led by a large bloc of junior senators demanding filibuster reform to speed up action in a chamber that has long boasted of being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” The issue has become the bete noire of a small-but-influential group of younger liberal commentators, just as fervent conservative activists stoked the effort to choke off filibusters then.
Reid’s proposal, which he has only sketched out briefly in public, would eliminate the filibuster vote that is needed to formally begin debate on legislation. He would allow for a final filibuster vote, thus making the chamber run more efficiently.
A still-undefined portion of his proposal would mandate that if legislation does not get the required 60 votes to end filibusters, the 40-something senators in the minority would have to maintain a “talking filibuster” akin to the version of the 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Reid and his aides will not say how such a requirement would work — whether senators would be required to speak all day and night as the senators did in the movie.
Democrats say such a move is needed because Republicans have escalated the filibuster wars to include blocking once routine motions to proceed to legislation and lower-level nominees to Cabinet agencies. The number of filibusters has steadily risen with both parties in the minority over the past 20 years, but the past six years of Democratic majorities saw a sharp rise in votes attempting to shut off filibusters.
“The Republicans have increased the numbers of filibusters so out of proportion to any changes here in the Senate. It is hard to comprehend. The Senate is not working as it should,” Reid said Tuesday.
The past two years has seen a drop in filibuster votes to a level a bit closer to Reid’s tenure as minority leader.
Republicans contend their actions are often prompted by Reid’s historically high use of a rare tactic that allows the majority leader to shut down any amendments from being offered. Faced with no way to alter legislation, Republicans regularly respond by filibustering the motion to begin debate.
They noted that Reid’s goal in recent years has been to protect Democrats’ endangered incumbents from voting on potentially damaging amendments, preferring that legislative fights end in a GOP-led filibuster rather than having incumbents cast votes that their opponents might highlight against them.
Making the matter even more arcane — yet more poisoned — is the means that Reid intends to use to change the rules. The chamber’s standing rules have been very clear that it is a “continuing body,” so its rules go on forever unless a two-thirds majority votes to change them.
Some senators and legal scholars from both parties have argued there is a brief window at the start of each new Congress in early January in which the Senate can alter rules by a simple majority vote, an argument that began in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s during filibusters of civil rights legislation.
However, no major rule change has ever been instituted with a unilateral vote by one party. The most recent effort to change the rules on a partisan vote came when McConnell was the No. 2 GOP leader and was supporting a bare-majority vote to impose a rule that would eliminate filibusters on then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
Then minority leader, Reid adamantly opposed the move and called his effort to thwart it his most important work since winning election in 1986.
Democrats labeled the Republican effort the “nuclear option” because they threatened a retaliatory fallout that would virtually shut down the chamber. That effort failed when a group of 14 Republicans and Democrats hatched out a compromise.
With the roles reversed, McConnell echoed Reid’s warnings of 2005, complaining that a lack of bipartisan negotiation on the issue would lead to more gridlock than voters had seen in recent years.
“Oh no, we’re going to do it on our own,” McConnell said, mocking Democrats. “I think it is a huge mistake, not only for the Senate. But it will impact obviously our short-term ability to come together and work on the really big problems.”