Senate Democrats short on votes to scale back the filibuster

Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said last week that he had plans to have another go at scaling back the filibuster, a procedural tactic used to stall or kill legislation in that chamber. This wasn’t a new threat, Reid has been targeting the filibuster for some time. Back in 2010, when Democrats had a 60-vote majority, Reid threatened to make changes. Senate Republicans made some concessions, scaling back its use and agreeing to do away with “secret holds” on legislation.

But despite the most recent threat, Senate Democrats who want to do away with the filibuster or make substantial changes don’t have the votes, according to The Hill:

Democrats don’t have the 51 votes they need in the Senate to change filibuster rules that could make it harder for the GOP minority to wield power in the upper chamber.

Lawmakers leading the charge acknowledge they remain short, but express optimism they’ll hit their goal.

“I haven’t counted 51 just yet, but we’re working,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a leading proponent of the so-called constitutional or “nuclear” option, in which Senate rules could be changed by a majority vote.
The problem for Udall and other supporters of filibuster reform is that many veteran Democratic senators remember when the filibuster was a useful tool in their years in the minority.

Each chamber of Congress is delegated in Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution with the task of determining its own rules, and the filibuster, which has existed for 200 years, has been used as a process of slowing down legislation or in some cases stopping bad legislation. A change to the rules of the chamber could, ironically, be subject to a filibuster itself. Because of this, some are pushing the so-called “nuclear option” that would go down like this:

Under the option, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) would send to the Senate desk a resolution changing the rules and ask for it to be adopted immediately. The parliamentarian would rule the request out of order and then the presiding chair — likely Vice President Biden — would affirm or ignore the parliamentarian’s ruling.

The Senate could then uphold Reid’s move to change the rules with a simple majority vote. Biden could break a 50-50 tie in Reid’s favor, meaning Udall and others backing filibuster reform only need 50 votes in the Senate to win.

The most likely time for Reid to use this option is at the beginning of the new Congress.

Of course, when Republicans held the Senate and were threatened to do away with the filibuster for judicial nominess, Reid and many other Democrats were apoplectic, and justifibly so. It’s hypocrisy on Reid’s part, but it’s also for show — an appeal to their base. Republicans still hold the House of Representatives, which is a “filibuster” in and of itself for bad legislation.

In any event, the beginning of the session could bring some fireworks if Senate Democrats choose to take this path.

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