Posted on January 4, 2011
By Michael Collins
WASHINGTON —A radio reporter in the classic movie 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington' dramatically tells his listeners that filibuster action in the U.S. Senate is 'democracy's finest show.'
That might have been true in director Frank Capra's world. But in today's ultra-partisan Washington, the show is in danger of being canceled, or at least cut short.
A group of Senate Democrats frustrated by Republicans' success in using the filibuster to thwart President Barack Obama's agenda is pushing for new rules to limit the parliamentary tool, which enables a single senator to hold up a piece of legislation by talking on and on and on.
The push to curtail the filibuster's use has touched off yet another partisan skirmish, with Republicans accusing Democrats of 'a power grab' and warning that limiting the filibuster would rob the minority party of its voice in the legislative process.
'The reform the Senate needs is a change in its behavior, not in its rules,' said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the filibuster's defenders.
A showdown could come as early as today, when the new Congress gets down to work.
The filibuster has been around since the mid-19th century, and both political parties have used the device to stall or even stop unwanted legislation whenever they have found themselves in the minority.
Both parties also have threatened to limit use of the filibuster when they have been in the majority and watched helplessly as opponents employed the maneuver to gum up the legislative process and keep them from enacting their agenda.
In the bygone era depicted in Capra's film, the filibuster was often great political theater, with lawmakers standing on the Senate floor and talking for hours on end to block a piece of legislation.
But today, filibusters seldom produce that much drama: The mere threat of a filibuster is enough to stop a bill in its tracks, and lawmakers employing the maneuver seldom see the need to take to the Senate floor to explain their objections.
At least 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster and allow for a vote on a bill or nomination. But Democrats were one vote shy of that magic number last year and will find it even further out of reach in the coming two years because their majority in the newly elected Senate will shrink to just 53 seats.
In a speech Tuesday before the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Alexander charged that the Democrats' push to change the filibuster amounts to 'election nullification.'
'Voters who turned out in November are going to be pretty disappointed when they learn the first thing some Democrats want to do is cut off the right of the people they elected to make their voices heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate,' Alexander said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and other Democrats pushing for reform argue they aren't looking to end the filibuster, only to stop its abuse. Their proposals call for ending the practice of allowing senators to anonymously place a bill on hold and forcing senators to come to the floor and explain why they are holding up the legislation.
'We will respect the Senate's unique history of unfettered debate and ensure that the minority's voice is heard,' Udall wrote in an op-ed piece that appeared Tuesday in The Washington Post.
Alexander countered that changing the rules would destroy the minority party's rights, eliminate an essential forum used to reach a consensus on difficult issues, and guarantee the GOP would do the same thing to Democrats if Republicans win back the majority in two years.
'Those who want to create a freight train running through the Senate today … might think about whether they will want that freight train in two years if it is the Tea Party Express,' he said.