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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Do Vermont's Senators Back Filibuster Reform? Yes and Maybe

Posted By on Wed, Dec 5, 2012 at 4:44 PM

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In remarks Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made clear he's serious about breaking the logjam in the Senate by reforming the body's onerous filibuster rules.

"We're going to change the rules. We cannot continue in this way. So I hope we can get something Republicans will work with us on," Reid said, according to several press accounts.

"But it won't be a handshake," he added, referring to a previous attempt to broker a truce. "We tried that last time; it didn't work."


Many in Reid's caucus are jonesing for a change to current Senate rules that allow the minority to block or slow legislative action. Led by more junior members like Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-NM), they say the Senate should no longer require 60 votes to begin debate and should force those threatening to filibuster a bill to hold the floor and actually debate it.

Perhaps most controversially, the Senate agitators hope to strike during a brief window in January, at the start of the next Congress, when just a simple majority — not a two-thirds vote — is required to change Senate rules.

So where do Vermont's senators stand on filibuster reform?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who famously held the Senate floor for eight and a half hours in a pseudo-filibuster (it didn't really count because he wasn't actually blocking anything), backs the changes proposed by Merkley and Udall. An aide says he's also comfortable changing the rules with a simple majority vote.

"People are angry because they are hurting and Congress isn't responding. And one of the reasons Congress is not responding is we have Republicans playing an extraordinary role in terms of obstructionism — filibuster after filibuster," Sanders told  Current TV's Elliot Spitzer last week. "I certainly believe that if we're going to do the people's business we can't get bogged down in filibusters and we need real reform there."

As for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), it's a little less clear.

His spokesman, David Carle, points out that, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "Few have had to contend with obstruction and with filibusters as often as he has over the last several years in overseeing the confirmation process for judicial nominees."

Carle adds: "He has said that if other options will not work and if abuses continue to escalate, at some point rules will need to be updated so the Senate can function properly. He has been discussing the problem and possible solutions with other senators on both sides of the aisle."

Does that mean Leahy backs Merkley's and Udall's proposals? And is he comfortable changing the rules with just a simple majority?

We couldn't quite tell, so we asked again.

"He has not made commitments on particular reform plans and continues to discuss them with other senators," Carle replied.

Leahy's seeming hesitance may have something to do with the length of his tenure — and memories of his days in the minority.

As the New York Times explained last week, "The divide exists somewhat along electoral generational lines. Newer senators, appalled by the moslasseslike movement of bills and the overall dysfunction of the chamber" mostly back the changes, while "others, deeply aware that a majority party today can be the sad and lonely minority tomorrow" are less supportive.

Talking Points Memo reported Tuesday that "several senior Senate Democrats" are particularly loathe to change the rules with just a simple majority. And TPM quotes Reid's Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) saying, "There's a growing Democratic unease with breaking the rules to change the rules. I think it would be very difficult for that to come about."

Here in Vermont, it's unclear how worked up the populace is over the inside baseball of Senate procedures. But at least two sister newspapers — the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus — certainly are.

"In the United States the bastion of oligarchy is the U.S. Senate. That’s because the rules of the Senate provide for minority rule. It is anti-democratic, but it’s the way it is," the papers wrote in a Saturday editorial.

"Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders must back efforts to limit the power of the minority to rule the day," the papers continued. "In the past Democrats have been reluctant to do so because they wanted to reserve the filibuster power for the day when they were in the minority. But the Republicans have overplayed their hand, abusing the filibuster to such an extent that action is required."

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz is a staff writer and political editor for Seven Days. He wrote the "Fair Game" political column from May 2012 through December 2016.

More by Paul Heintz


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