US Sen: Filibuster reform a reality thanks to Jeff Merkley

Carla Axtman

In a move that has sent conservatives to the fainting couch to wallow in their own schadenfreude, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally, finally, decided that it was time to do what Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has been saying for years: tweak the rules of the filibuster to end minority blocking of non-Supreme Court judicial nominees and executive nominees.

That's the only change, incidentally. Republicans can still continue to block EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF LEGISLATION and they can still block the President's nominees to the Supreme Court. This is only for non-Supreme Court judicial nominees and other executive branch nominees. This small move has left the Republicans in line for smelling salts and stoked up outrage.

The Senate has been in a grind for a very long time, but the worst of it has come in the last five years where Senate Republicans have placed a filibuster on virtually every piece of serious legislation and nominee. The body was for all practical terms in paralysis, requiring a 60 vote majority to do anything.

Dave Weigel, Slate:

We do know how the Senate came to change its rules today, a vote that represented the biggest victory for the left since the election of President Barack Obama. That process started in the first weeks of 2009, after a Democratic landslide mighty enough to sweep even Al Franken into the upper house. The Republicans, who’d held 55 seats during the 2005 “nuclear option” fight, were down to 41. A new class of Democrats, including Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, buckled in for action.

They got a slog. An economic stimulus package, once expected to get up to 80 votes, got over the 60-vote cloture line only with huge concessions to three Republicans. A simple omnibus parks funding bill took weeks to pass. Then, in May, just enough Republicans held together to filibuster the president’s nominee for deputy secretary of the Interior. To Majority Leader Harry Reid’s surprise, the Democratic left honed in quickly on the filibuster, demanding that he change it.

But Reid wasn't having it. He was a true believer in the rules of the Senate, wanting to forge moderation and consensus. All the while, the GOP kept right on filibustering. Not just some of the time. ALL of the time. Every move in the Senate required a 60 vote majority to do anything.

More Wiegel:

In May 2012, Republicans blocked an attempt to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Reid responded with an apology to progressives. “If there were ever a time when Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley were prophetic, it’s tonight,” he said. “These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t. And they were right. The rest of us were wrong—or most of us, anyway. What a shame.”

In retrospect, that was the moment progressives brought their party on board with the biggest majority-rule congressional reform since the 1970s. Every one of Reid’s procedural moves since then has broken the minority’s power to obstruct legislation. This wasn’t just a case of broken trust between Democrats and Republicans—though that was part of it. This was a victory for a movement that believes its greatest threat comes from unfriendly courts and minority obstruction.

Certainly Senator Udall has been an important and leading voice on making this change. But the real champion for tweaking this rule? Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.

Sahil Kapur, Talking Points Memo:

Nobody in the U.S. Senate has been more a more outspoken advocate for filibuster reform than Jeff Merkley. The Oregon Democrat was first elected senator on the same night that Barack Obama was first elected president, and quickly witnessed the chamber "go from being a cooling saucer to being a deep-freeze," as he puts it, with unprecedented gridlock.

This change has truly sent Republicans off the deep end. Yesterday on Facebook, Oregonian contributing columnist, conservative Brendan Monaghan left a number of comments on my Facebook feed, but this one seems to sum it up best:

I don't believe changing the rules because you can't always get your way qualifies as believing in process and government. All I'm saying is, recognize what you've done. Recognize this is the arrogance of power, the delusion of your own invincibility. Some day, you may find yourself in the minority, unable to use the Senate as the saucer that cools the Tea.

This is the delusion that Republicans are stewing themselves in right now. Brendan is relatively moderate compared to most of his media counterparts, yet has bought his party's bizarre rhetoric on this issue. It's a shame that Republicans have decided that it's more important to pretend that bipartisanship is simply them getting their way all the time instead of having to actually concede some stuff to the Democrats. That's what this boils down to.

Interestingly, I've spoken a number of times to Merkley about the idea of the Democrats losing the majority and how any filibuster changes would impact the minority. Merkley has been very confident that any of the changes he's proposed would continue to allow the minority their power to wield obstruction. In fact, Merkley has never proposed an elimination of the filibuster procedure. Merkley's real goal for filibuster reform is the "talking filibuster", requiring the move to be the "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" style talk which would force the persons obstructing to stand up and actually defend what they're doing. This retains the minority's power to block when necessary, but they have to put their back into it instead of simply blocking as a matter of course.

And it's about time we get that rule on the books, too.

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