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Sen. Tom Udall has had his big day in Congress – at least for now. New Mexico’s freshman Democratic senator and a number of colleagues elected in the big Democratic years of 2006 and 2008 became dissatisfied about the Senate’s slow pace a year or so ago.
Udall, his cousin Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, and a few others with experience in the U.S. House of Representatives, were accustomed to a much quicker pace of work, with bills rammed through by strong leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich.
They convinced other newly elected Democrats that the Senate is dysfunctional and broken. So they devised a plan to shake up the Senate and convinced 26 senators, including some of the old war horses, to become cosponsors.
The centerpiece of the Udall plan was to allow controversial bills to pass the Senate by majority vote rather than requiring 60 votes to prevent a filibuster.
The group also wanted the Senate to accept the House practice of adopting new rules of procedure on the opening day of Congress every two years.
Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle were quite annoyed at these new arrivals who wanted to change the way the Senate has operated for over two centuries. The Senate is intended to deliberate legislation the House has quickly passed.
The Senate no longer deliberates, Udall and friends said. We sit in our offices meeting with lobbyists and constituents with C-SPAN2 on in the corner. If we’re going to allow filibusters, we should at least make them stand there and talk.
Senate Democratic leaders took turns meeting with the upstarts to explain that just because their party was in firm control didn’t mean it always would be.
That control has switched back and forth for many years. At the time it wasn’t evident how quickly that control would slip away again.
Eventually, to put down the unrest, Senate leaders agreed to allow the group to present its rule changes to the Senate on the opening day of the 2011-2012 Senate session.
The Senate has never followed the House procedure of adopting new rules at the beginning of every session because two-thirds of the Senators are in the middle of their terms so rules are just carried over. And when the Senate adopts new rules, it is by a two-thirds vote.
But a little bit of precedent was created back when Richard Nixon and then Hubert Humphrey were vice presidents, even though no rules actually were changed.
So Vice-President Joe Biden, as president of the Senate, agreed to allow the group to present its changes on the session’s opening day for a simple majority vote.
The timing was a bit suspect because by then polls showed Democrats’ power slipping away. Was that the reason the Senate Democratic leadership let the new guys have their chance?
My guess is it had some effect but the Democratic leaders knew the 60-vote filibuster rule would remain intact because they were going to vote against the change.
They were willing, however, to consider some of the group’s more modest changes to the rules such as the secret holds one person could put on the confirmation process.
So on opening day of this session, the 26 Democrats were allowed to introduce their rules changes. Democratic leader Harry Reid then called a recess that lasted three weeks while he and Republican leader Mitch McConnell and some level-headed veteran senators from both sides worked out agreements on some of the Senate’s more arcane rules.
The changes were approved by lopsided votes of well over two-thirds. They will be good for the Senate and for the increased civility Americans want from their elected leaders.
Udall and cosponsors got 44 votes for their filibuster proposal. He says he’ll keep trying but this may be about as close as the Senate ever comes to changing the time-honored filibuster.