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Reform of the U.S. Senate’s infamous filibuster rule could well be the first order of business when the nation’s 113th Congress convenes on the third day of the new year, 2013.
At least that is what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been saying and it should be welcome news to New Mexico’s Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, a leading proponent of filibuster reform.
Almost two years ago, on Jan. 5, 2011, Udall went to the Senate floor with a series of proposals to alter that chamber’s antiquated rules of procedure, including the filibuster.
“Here in the Senate,” he said, “open, honest debate has been replaced with secret backroom deals and partisan gridlock…up-or-down votes, sometimes even debate on important issues, have been unreasonably delayed or blocked entirely at the whim of a single senator.”
Udall’s proposed reforms two years ago were co-sponsored by Udall, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) but they came to naught after Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) shook hands in a “gentlemen’s agreement” that Senate Republicans would not abuse the filibuster.
Suffice it to say not all “gentlemen” keep their agreements. Thus, as the 112th Congress prepares to adjourn, Reid acknowledges his accord with McConnell was a “mistake” that gave Senate “Republicans a big cudgel over the last two years.”
“These two young, fine senators (Udall and Merkley) said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t,” Reid said. “What a shame.”
It was also a sham, because as presently constituted a Senate “filibuster” isn’t really a filibuster at all — not in the sense of requiring a filibustering senator to actually stand up in the Senate and talk, exclaim without end, against a piece of legislation they want defeated.
All they have to do is announce their intentions to “filibuster” and then leave the Senate floor. For that matter, they can even filibuster any motion to debate that legislation.
And it would take the votes of 60 senators to end the nonsense and bring the measure to debate.
As the recent study “Curbing Filibuster Abuse” by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law put it, “Under current rules, a minority of lawmakers has effective veto power over bills and (presidential) nominees (awaiting Senate confirmation), derailing the legislative process.”
Make them talk, the report concludes. “Filibustering senators should be required to stay on the Senate floor and actually debate, as was true in the past.”
Is that too much to ask? If a senator wants to filibuster shouldn’t he or she be made to filibuster?
As Udall has pointed out, “The American people are fed up with it. They are fed up with us.”
If the recent elections are any indication, a sizeable group of the newly elected senators the voters sent Washington got the message.
Of the 12 new senators elected on Nov. 6, fully eight (including New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich) endorsed filibuster reform during their campaigns.
According to Brennan Center researcher Jonathan Backer, “Five of the freshman reformers (will) replace senators who voted against the rule changes” two years ago.
So what’s to keep one or more senator from announcing his/her intentions to filibuster the reforms Udall and his cohorts seek?
Well, under Senate procedures dating to at least the 1950s at the beginning of any new Congress, a simple majority of senators can establish the rules of that body, including the filibuster rule.
Said Tom Udall in response to a reporter’s question recently, “I haven’t counted 51 just yet, but we’re working on it.”
New Mexico Progress