Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Filibuster and Senate rules

Posted on January 6, 2011

ALEXANDER: Madam President, I have enjoyed this extensive opportunity to hear my colleagues on a very important subject about what the nature of the Senate will be. I am going to have about 10 minutes of remarks on the comments of Senators Merkley and Udall, and then I will yield to Senator Wyden, for his comments.

If I could say anything from deep down within me to my colleagues who are so exercised about this, it would be this: Before we change the rules, use the rules.

We talk about Senator Byrd a lot because he understood the rules so well. I have often told the story of when Senator Baker became the Republican majority leader in 1981. He went to see Senator Byrd, the Democratic leader, and said: “Senator Byrd, I am suddenly the majority leader. I will never know the rules as well as you do, so I will make a deal with you. If you will not surprise me, I will not surprise you.” Senator Byrd said: “Let me think about it.” The next morning he told Senator Baker he would do that. The reason I mention those two Senators is because, before we get too mired down in our differences, let us think for a moment about what our goal ought to be. The goal for the Senate, to me, is to return the Senate to the way it operated during those 8 years when Senator Byrd and Senator Baker were the leaders of their parties. Four years Senator Byrd was the majority leader and 4 years Senator Baker was the majority leader.

I have talked to staff members, some of whom are still around. Senator Merkley’s history goes back to Senator Hatfield in 1976, but I first came in 1967 as Senator Baker's legislative assistant, when there was only one legislative assistant per Senator. In 1977, I came back and spent 3 months with Senator Baker when he became the Republican leader, and I followed him pretty closely during the next 8 years.
Here is the way it worked back then.

The majority leader -- whether it was Senator Byrd or Senator Baker -- would bring a bill to the floor. He would get the bill to the floor because Senators knew they were going to get to debate and amend the bill. The Senator from Oregon is talking about no debates occurring today. Well, of course there are no debates, because when Republicans come down here with amendments, the majority leader doesn't let us offer them. All those cloture motions he is talking about means the majority leader is cutting off my right to represent my people and offer an amendment in a debate. They are calling a filibuster a cutoff. It wouldn't be a filibuster if the majority leader weren't cutting off my right, which he has done more than the last six majority leaders combined.

But let's go back to what our goal should be. Senators Byrd or Baker would say: OK. The Energy bill or the education bill is up, everybody get their amendments in. They might get 300 amendments filed. At some point, the majority leader would say: I ask unanimous consent that the amendments be cut off. Of course, they would get that after a while because everybody had all the amendments in that they could think of.

You didn't go to the majority leader down on your knees and say: Mr. Majority Leader, may I please offer this amendment or that amendment? You just put your amendment out there, and then they started voting.

Then Senators Byrd and Baker did something else we don't do today, which is why I am talking about using the rules before we change the rules. They debated, they voted; they debated, they voted; they debated; they voted. Of course, 300 amendments are a lot of amendments to get through. So the leaders and the staff would say to the Senator from North Carolina or the Senator from Oregon: Are you sure you want 25 amendments? It is Wednesday night. No, 10 will be enough. On Thursday night they might say: Are you sure you want these five amendments? It is Thursday night. We are going to be here Friday, and we are going to finish this bill. We will be here Saturday if we have to be, and we will be here Sunday. You are going to get your amendments, and we are going to vote on it, but we are going to finish the bill. That is what the leaders did.

Sometimes there would be a piece of legislation that would come up where one side or the other wanted to kill it and so they would try to kill it. That’s just like we would do today, if Democrats were to bring up a bill to abolish the secret ballot in union elections. We would do everything we could to kill it. If the House passes a bill and brings it over here to repeal the health care law, the Democrats are going to do everything they can to kill it. That is separate. But most of the time under the leadership of Senators Byrd and Baker, the bill came to the floor, there was bipartisan cooperation, and there were amendments.

Why was there bipartisan cooperation? Because the leaders knew that unless they had it, they wouldn't move an inch. Being good Senators, they wanted to do their jobs. In fact, Senator Baker would often tell his Republican chairmen: Don't even bring the bill to the floor unless the ranking member, the Democrat, is with you. So most of the time, you would have the Democrat and the Republican there together and they would allow amendments, would fight other amendments off, and they would get to a conclusion. There weren't so many filibusters because the majority leader wasn't cutting off the right to debate and calling it a filibuster. This is a word trick is what this is.

I have talked to a lot of my friends on the Democratic side and a lot of Republicans and I think we basically want the same thing. I think we want a Senate that works better. I think it is now a mere shadow of itself. I agree with Senator Merkley about that but not because of filibusters. It is because the majority leader is cutting off debate and calling it a filibuster.

The majority leader and the Republican leader I commend today because they have been talking about how we can do better. We all know that changing our behavior will be more lasting than changing the rules. I am glad Senators Reid and McConnell are working on this. They have asked Senator Schumer and me to work on it some more, and we are going to do that. We have had several meetings and we have another this afternoon and we will keep working. We will consider carefully these proposals or any others that come, and we will see if we can come to some agreement about how to move ahead.
My heartfelt plea is before we change the rules, let's use the rules. Going down through the list of reform suggestions:

The motion to proceed -- that is a difficult one for many of us because if you are in the minority the motion to proceed is your weapon to require the majority to give you amendments.

Secret holds -- Senator Wyden tells me he and Senator Grassley have been working on that for 15 years. They have Republican support and Democratic support for it. Maybe this is the time to deal with secret holds. I make my holds public. When I was nominated for the U.S. Education Secretary by President Bush, the Senator from Ohio held me up for 3 months and never said why. I went around to see the Senator Rudman from New Hampshire and asked him what to do. He said when he was nominated by President Ford to the Federal Communications Commission, the Senator from New Hampshire held him up. Finally Rudman withdrew his name and ran for the Senate against the Senator and beat him. That is how Senator Rudman got in the Senate. Secret holds is an area that has had a lot of work and bipartisan support.
The right to offer amendments -- the problem I have with altering the current rules is that offering amendments is what we do. I went to see Johnny Cash one time in the 1980s, and I asked him a dumb question, I said: Johnny, how many nights are you on the road? He said: Oh, 200. I said: Why do you do that? He said: That is what I do. If you are on the Grand Ole Opry, you sing. If you are in the Senate, you offer amendments and you debate. That is what we do, that is what we are supposed to do. Yet we have not been allowed to do it.

Talking filibusters -- if we are talking about the post-cloture period, the problem with that is the majority has not used the rules. If I object to going forward with a bill, the majority, if they think I am abusing the rules, can say OK, Senator Alexander, get down there on the floor because we are going to be here all night. And you can only get 7 hours and then you have to line up 23 other Senators to take 1 hour each, and if you stop talking we are going to put the question to a vote. If you do a number of certain other things we are going to make a dilatory motion. In other words, the majority can make it really hard for a Senator who objects.

Someone said one, two, three, or four Senators can hold this place up. They cannot hold it up. Because if you have 60 votes you can pass anything. If you have 60 votes you can pass anything and Senator Byrd said in his last testimony before the Rules Committee that you can confront a filibuster by using the rules.

The last two things we could do are, No. 1, we could stop complaining about voting. It happens on the Republican side and the Democratic side. If somebody offers an amendment that is controversial and everybody runs up to the leader and says we don't want to vote on that, then too bad. We are here to vote. That is why we are here so we should do that.

The third thing we can do, and Senator Byrd suggested this in his last testimony, is let's get rid of the 3-day work week. There is not enough time for all the Senators to offer their amendments and there is not enough time for the majority to confront the minority if they think the filibuster is being abused if we have a 3-day work week, and we never vote on Friday. We did not vote on Friday one time last year.

Let's use the rules. If you think we are holding something up improperly, confront that Senator. Run over him. You can do it. You have the power to do it if you have 60 votes. In this new Congress there will be plenty of opportunities there.

Finally I am going to take these five suggestions and work with Senator Schumer and work with my friends on the other side. They are very thoughtful. Senator Udall spent a lot of time on this, Senator Wyden and Senator Grassley spent 15 years. Senator Merkley used to be a speaker. We have talked a number of times. I greatly respect his work in his State and the fact that he has seen the Senate for a long period of time. I am taking very seriously everything that is said here. I am just worried about turning the Senate into the House.

We have a majoritarian organization over there. They can repeal the health care law or they can get rid of the secret ballot in union elections with a majority vote. If you turn this place into that, you just go bam, bam and it is done. The Senate is the place for us to say: Whoa, whoa, let's see if we can get a consensus before we do anything.

When we get a consensus we not only get a better bill, but usually, the country accepts it better. The American people like to see us cooperating. They like to see us coming up with a tax bill or treaty or civil rights bill or a health care bill or a financial regulation bill, where we all have something in it. They feel better about that product. It is the check and the balance that is the genius of our system.

Obviously we can do some things better around here. I am committed to trying. I thank my friends for the amount of time and effort they have given. I am going to take everything they have said very seriously and in the spirit they have offered it. But I hope a part of our solution is that we use the rules before we change the rules because this is the forum to protect minority rights, this is the forum to force a consensus, and we dare not lose that. We dare not lose that.