Posted on January 4, 2011
Scott WongSenate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander on Tuesday denounced Democrats’ attempts to change the filibuster and other Senate rules, warning that their “brazen power grab” in the new Congress would ensure a similar response from Republicans if they capture control of the chamber in 2012.
That was the case, he said, when Democrats filibustered President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Now, Democrats have complained Republicans are doing the same thing with President Barack Obama’s court picks.
“Those who want to create a freight train running through the Senate today, as it does in the House, might think about whether they will want that freight train in two years when the freight train might be the Tea Party Express,” Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Democrats had planned to vote on a proposal by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) on Wednesday, the first legislative day of the 112th Congress when the Senate is allowed to set new rules with a simple majority of 51 members. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is now expected to extend the legislative day until the week of Jan. 24, a move that would give Democrats more time to build bipartisan support or backing along party lines.
Alexander said he didn't like that legislative maneuver but conceded it's an "avenue that is open to the majority."
Reid and other Democrats have blasted Republicans for abusing the filibuster, which frequently has been used to block legislation on the Senate floor. And reform allies called the rampant use of the legislative procedure "unconstitutional and un-American," saying the democratic principle of majority rule no longer applies in the Senate.
The just-concluded 111th Congress saw 91 filibusters, compared to less than two dozen during the entire 19th century. During the eight-year presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, there were just two.
"The filibuster has never been part of the Constitution or part of any law, not even in the original rules of the United States Senate," said former Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Penn.), president and chief executive of Common Cause, which has advocated for campaign-finance reform and government accountability. "It’s only been in the past generation that the use and abuse of the filibuster has become the standard in the Senate."
But Alexander argued that curbing use of the filibuster would diminish the rights of the minority and undermine the will of voters who rejected Democratic policies like the health care law in the fall election.
“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.
“In the November elections, voters showed that they remember the passage of the health care law on Christmas Eve, 2009: midnight sessions, voting in the midst of a snow storm, back room deals, little time to read, amend or debate the bill, passage by a straight party line vote,” he added. “It was how it was done as much as what was done that angered the American people. Minority voices were silenced.”
Yet even as he railed against what he sees as abuses by the majority, Alexander told reporters he's speaking with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) about areas they might find common ground. Alexander said he’s studying proposals by Democrats to change the practice of "secret holds," where a single anonymous senator can block an executive nominee or legislation, or finding ways to make it easier for a president to get his nominations confirmed.
"That might be two areas where we could work together," he said.
"What I'm hoping will happen is that there will be some bipartisan negotiations with the Republicans that will yield some fruit," Schumer added Tuesday. "I'm involved in that and we'll see what happens."
Asked if he believed senators should actually be required to go to the floor and mount a filibuster, Schumer said: "Well that's certainly one of the things being discussed – it's something that I think makes sense."
Still, Alexander prefers Senate rules be left alone. After his Heritage Foundation address, he played a video of speeches by prominent Democrats, including Schumer, former Sens. Obama and Hillary Clinton and the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, defending the filibuster. Retired Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said last year eliminating the filibuster would be "foolish," and Reid said in a 1995 speech that he views the use of the filibuster "as a shield rather than a sword, invoked to protect rights not to suppress them.
Alexander rattled off figures suggesting that as majority leader, Reid has abused Senate rules as well. Reid used his power to cut off all amendments and debate 44 times, more than his six predecessors combined, the Tennessee Republican said. And Reid set the record for bypassing committees and bringing bills directly to the floor 43 times in the past four years.
"The demise of the Senate is not because Republicans seek to filibuster," Alexander said. "The real obstructionists have been the Democratic majority which, for an unprecedented number of times, used their majority advantage to limit debate, not to allow amendments and to bypass the normal committee consideration of legislation."
Manu Raju contributed to this story.