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Bennet Joins The Filibuster Reform Effort

March 9, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Freshman Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet [D, CO] has joined a handful of his Senate colleagues in the effort to reform the filibuster. The filibuster has long been used by both parties when they were in the minority to prevent the Senate from acting on certain measures. But starting with the 110th Congress, when Democrats took control of the House and Senate, the number of filibusters launched by the GOP has skyrocketed to historic levels. Bennet last week introduced a Senate resolution (S.Res.440) that would not only limit a senator’s ability to place anonymous holds, but would also make it easier for a majority party to break a filibuster. The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein explains the rather byzantine way Bennet’s resolution works:

Cloture votes (those requiring a 60-vote majority to end debate) wouldn’t be eliminated. But after three such votes, the threshold for blocking action would be set at 45 Senators… There is a catch, however. If the minority party holding up the legislation can find a Senator who caucuses with the majority party to join them in their effort to block cloture, the threshold for blockage would be 41 Senators (meaning that 60 Senators would still be needed to break the filibuster). But there is one more catch on top of that. If, after the third cloture vote, the majority party were to get the support of three members who caucus with the minority party to vote with them, the threshold for blockage would be raised to 45.

Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Harkin [D, IA] introduced a resolution (S.Res.416) that gradually lowers from 60 to 51 the number of senators needed to break a filibuster depending on how many times cloture is invoked on a given measure. Harkin’s resolution currently has only three other co-sponsors, but one of them is Sen. Dick Durbin [D, IL], the number two Senate Democrat. Both of these measures, however, face a tough road ahead. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] consistently claims that the votes of 67 senators are needed to change Senate rules – which both resolutions do. Rounding up 60 votes to break a filibuster already takes a titanic effort. Getting 67 is virtually impossible. Some lawmakers claim that the filibuster is an integral part of the Senate’s historic role as a deliberative body. Sen. Lamar Alexander [R, TN], for example, recently said that budget reconciliation, which allows Democrats to bypass a filibuster and amend their health care bill with a simple majority, will “be the end of the Senate as a protector of minority rights.” Ezra Klein, after speaking with political scientist Sarah Binder, reaches a different conclusion based on Senate history:

The filibuster was an accident. It has been reformed a number of times (notably in 1917, when cloture was set at 67 votes, and in 1975, when cloture was lowered to 60 votes). It can be kept in its current state, strengthened, weakened or abolished. There is nothing sacred about it.

Of course, the supposed role of the Senate isn’t the only reason filibuster reform often is a non-starter. Many senators love the instant clout and attention a filibuster threat garners and many Democrats are wary of losing the ability to filibuster when they inevitably are in the minority once more.

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