Speeches & Floor Statements

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

Posted on January 5, 2011

ALEXANDER: I thank the Senator from Iowa for his consistency over the years with his proposal. I wonder if I can make a few remarks on his proposal, and if he has time, if he is still here, maybe I will pose a question to him. I see the Senator from Kansas is also here. He spent a lot of time on the Rules Committee on this subject. He is one of our most forceful speakers on the matter, and I would defer to him, and then I know there are other Senators -- the Senator from Oregon, the Senator from New Mexico -- who have some proposals to offer. There may be other Senators on the Republican side who come to the floor.

First, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record an address I made yesterday at the Heritage Foundation entitled "The Filibuster: Democracy's finest show...the right to talk your head off."

I borrowed those words from H.V. Kaltenborn and "Mr.?Smith Goes to Washington."

I am a little amused by the suggestion the Senator from Iowa made and others made that somehow the Senate has been paralyzed for the last couple of years. Most of the people I know are concerned about what the Senate did do, not what it did not do. It is hard to say you are paralyzed when you pass a $1 trillion stimulus bill, health care law, financial regulation law, et cetera, et cetera.

As far as the claim that Republicans are holding things up goes, I have a few comments. We did not have a budget last year. Most households have to have budgets. The Senate ought to have one. Why didn't we have a budget? It wasn't the Republicans holding it up. As the Senator from Iowa said, under our rules, it only takes 51 votes to pass a budget. During the last couple of years, the Democrats had 59 or 60 votes. So the reason we did not have a budget is because the Democrats did not want to pass a budget, or at least that they did not pass a budget. It had nothing to do with the Senate being "broken."

The Senator from Iowa made this Rules proposal in 1995. He has made some modifications in his proposal but basically this is the same as he offered in 1995. I remember those days pretty well. It was right after the so-called Gingrich revolution, in 1994. Republicans took control of the Senate and of the House of Represenatives. The Senator from Iowa made his proposal to diminish the effectiveness of a filibuster. What did the Republicans do? The Republicans, had the most to gain -- at least temporarily -- from being able to get their agenda through the Senate. But every single one opposed the proposal. Every single Republican Senator in 1995 said: No, we may love our agenda, but we do not want to change the Senate. We don't want to jeopardize the Senate as a forum for forcing consensus and protecting minority rights and letting the voices of all of the people be heard on the Senate floor.

Not only the Republican Senators in 1995 had that opinion. Here are some things that were said mostly in 2005 by Democratic leaders. There were some Republicans who had the same idea the Senator from Iowa has about diminishing the effectiveness of the filibuster. In this case, they wanted to diminish the use of filibusters on judicial nominations. There was great consternation because Democrats decided to filibuster President Bush's judges. I didn't like that either. This is what has been said by Democrats.

Senator Robert Byrd in his last testimony before the Rules Committee: “We must never, ever, ever, ever tear down the only wall, the necessary fence, that this Nation has against the excesses of the Executive Branch. What is that necessary fence? That necessary fence is anchored in the filibuster.

Senator Schumer of New York in 2005: “The checks and balances which have been at the core of this Republic are about to be evaporated.” This was in response to the Republicans who were trying to diminish the effectiveness of the filibuster in 2005. "The checks and balances" Senator Schumer said, "which say that if you get 51 percent of the vote, you don't get your way 100 percent of the time."

Former Senator Hillary Clinton: “You've got majority rule. Then you've got the Senate over here where people can slow things down, where they can debate, where they have something called the filibuster. You know, it seems like it's a little less than efficient. Well, that's right, it is. And deliberately designed to be so.”

Senator Dodd more recently: “I’m totally opposed to the idea of changing the filibuster rules. I think that's foolish, in my view.”

Senator Byrd: “That's why we have a Senate, to amend and debate freely.”

Senator Dodd: “I can understand the temptation to change the rules that make the Senate so unique and simultaneously so terribly frustrating. But whether such temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process or by pure political expediency, I believe such changes would be unwise...”

Therefore, to my fellow Senators who never served a day in the minority, I urge you to pause in your enthusiasm to change Senate rules.

Just two more. Senator Reid, who was then the Democratic leader but the minority leader, said in 2005: “The filibuster is far from a ‘procedural gimmick.’ It's part of the fabric of this institution that we call the Senate. For 200 years we've had the right to extend the debate. It's not procedural gimmick. Some in this chamber want to throw out 214 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power. They want to do away with Mr. Smith, as depicted in that great movie, being able to come to Washington. They want to do away with the filibuster. They think they're wiser than our Founding Fathers. I doubt that's true.”

Then there was one other Senator who spoke and who said this, the Senator from Illinois, Senator Obama: The Senator from Illinois, Senator Obama: “Then if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to the Democratic debate, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.”
I think the last 2 years in the Senate have been an aberration. We have had no incentive for the majority to take the ideas of the minority because the majority had these huge majorities, nearly 60 votes here, and a Democratic President.

So when Senator Corker, my colleague from Tennessee, began to work on the financial regulation bill, there came a time in the process where the Democrats said: “Well, you know, we like Corker, and he has got some good ideas, but we do not need his vote to pass this bill. We have got the votes. We won the election. We will write the bill.”

So the Senate has had no consensus. Instead, we had a Democratic financial regulation bill. We had a Democratic health care bill. We had a mostly Democratic stimulus bill. We might have had one or two Republicans vote for it.

For the last 2 years, we have not had any experience in working across party lines. What the filibuster does is say, you are not going to pass anything in the Senate unless at least some Republicans and some Democrats agree. You will not pass anything unless you get a consensus.
Then that will change behavior, and people say, okay, let's bring a No Child Left Behind bill to the floor. But it has got to have the support of Senator Enzi and Senator Harkin or it is not going anywhere, because it has got to have 60 votes to move forward. What is the advantage of that? The advantage of that is the comparison of the Civil Rights bill in 1964, and the health care law of 2009.

In 1964, after a bitter fight led by Senator Russell of Georgia, the Civil Rights bill passed the Senate, overcoming a filibuster. The bill was written in the Republican leader's office. It was not just sent over there in the middle of the night during Christmas, it was written in his office. You had President Johnson, a Democrat, and Senator Dirksen saying, this is good for the country. A lot of people hated the bill. And some people thought it did not go far enough.

What did Senator Russell do, who had fought that bill for his whole term here? He went home to Georgia and said, I did everything I could to stop it, but it is the law, and we must obey it. So not only does the Senate need a consensus to get a better bill, we need a bill that the country will accept.

Compare that to the health care law in 2009. A lot of good intentions went into the health care law. I know that. Senator Harkin was in the middle of that, but the fact of the matter was that it was a Democratic bill. It was rammed through Christmas Eve in the middle of the night. We barely had a chance to look at the bill, and it passed with a solely partisan vote.

And what happened? Instead of everybody going home and saying, it is the law of the land, we support it, an instant movement was created to repeal it and replace it. I hope we will not do what Senator Harkin suggests. I think his proposal will create a situation where the majority says: “Well, we are going to hang you, but we will hang you in 3 days instead of tonight.” They will narrow it down until they can pass a measure with 51 votes.

So if the Republican House of Representatives passes a bill to repeal the health care law, then you know Senate Republicans would pass it, too, if we have got 51 votes. Or if the Democratic House, as they did last year, passes a bill to repeal the ballot in secret elections then the Democrats over here will pass it, too, if they have 51 votes. But when a consensus is required, if bills such as that come from the House to the Senate, we in the Senate say, whoa, let's think this over. We do not pass it. We do not pass it unless we have some kind of consensus.

That does not mean all the Republicans and all of the Democrats must always agree. We had almost all of the Republicans and some of the Democrats on the tax agreement that was passed in December. On the New START treaty, we had almost all of the Democrats and some of the Republicans support it. But in each case, at least you had substantial consensus from both parties, and I think the country respects and appreciates that.

I think the Framers knew what they were doing when they created a majoritarian House, in other words, the freight train that can run through whatever the result of election is. And when they created a different kind of Senate. A different kind of Senate that Senator Byrd eloquently has said has been one where we can say, you are not going to pass anything unless we do it together. That is called consensus. That is called cooperation. I think the American people would be greatly relieved.

My question I wish to pose through the Chair to Senator Harkin is, what is a filibuster? Senator Sanders was on the floor for several hours on the tax debate last month. He spoke for 8 or 9 hours. I guess that is a filibuster in the traditional sense. But I think the kind of filibuster the Senator from Iowa is counting is this: let's say Senator Reid brings a health care bill to the floor, and I rush over to offer an amendment to the health care bill, and Senator Reid says: Sorry, I am going to cut off your amendment. Then I object. Senator Reid calls what I tried to do a filibuster.
If we are just talking and amending and debating, that is not a filibuster. It is not a filibuster until the majority leader cuts off debate and amendments. So what the Democrats are counting as filibusters is the number of times they have cut us off from doing what we are supposed to do, which is, amend and debate.

It is like being invited to sing on the Grand Ole Opry, and getting there and you are not allowed to sing. The people of Tennessee do not expect me to come up here and sit on a log just because the distinguished majority leader says he does not want my amendments. What was traditional in the Senate is that Senators could offer amendments and debate, at almost any time, on almost any bill.


In the days of Senator Byrd and Senator Baker, they would have 300 amendments filed. They would start voting. So some Senators would say, well, it is Thursday, don't we go home? The Leaders would say no, we are going to vote, unless you want to give up your amendment. Instead of doing that, we did not vote on one Friday in the Senate this past year, and a lot of Senators on both sides of the aisle do not want to vote on controversial issues. If we look for consensus, if we were willing to vote on controversial issues, and if we ended the 3-day work week, if the majority thinks the minority is abusing the filibuster, they can confront it. They can sit over there and they can say to us, “Okay, Senator Alexander, 60 of us are ready to cut this off. We are ready to get on to a vote. So you have got 7 hours that you can speak, then you have got to get 23 other Senators to take the other hours. If you stop talking, we are going to put the question to a vote, and we have got some motions we can make about your being dilatory. In other words, we can make life miserable for you, because we are going to do this all night long.”

Senator Byrd said in his last testimony: “The rules exist today to confront a filibuster.”

So my question to the Senator from Iowa which I would pose through the Chair is: What is a filibuster?  Is a filibuster when I come down to the floor to amend the health care bill, and the majority leader says, sorry, I am going to use my powers to cut it off? You cannot amend the bill. And then he files cloture. That is what he calls a filibuster, I think. What I call it is cutting off my right to amend, right to debate, right to do my job.