Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) : Senate Filibuster

Posted on December 3, 2012

I want to speak this afternoon about the Senate as an institution; about its majority leader, Senator Reid, who is my friend; about various conversations we have been having in the Senate and discussions about what the majority leader has said about how the Senate should operate.  I know the majority leader cares about this institution.  I believe it.  He has said it.  He shows it.  He has one of the most difficult jobs anybody could possibly have. 

One time he told me:  My job is to make everybody mad.  In many ways it is, when you have a body of 100 that operates by unanimous consent and every one of us is equal.  It is a very difficult job to be the minority leader, which the Republican leader is today.  It is a more difficult job to be the majority leader.

I emphasize this because I know Senator Reid cares about this institution, and I know Senator Reid does not want to go down in history as the man who ended the Senate.  But if he persists in doing what he says he will do -- which is to break the rules of the Senate to change the filibuster rules -- that will be his legacy.  He will go down in history as the Senator who ended the Senate.

You might say:  Senator Alexander, that is a very serious charge to make about a majority leader whom you know and respect and who you just said cares about this institution.  It is a serious charge to make.  The only reason I would say it is because Senator Reid said it himself.

Shortly after I came to the Senate, in 2005, we Republicans, including this Senator, were very upset about what we believed were unfair efforts by Democrats to keep President Bush from securing an up-or-down vote on his judicial nominees.  We were in the majority, we Republicans.  We had a Republican President of the United States.  We believed that attacks on the President's nominees were extraordinarily unfair, and the other side was using the rules of the Senate to prevent an up-or-down vote.  They were filibustering President Bush's nominees.

We could not change their minds, so a number of Senators persuaded Senator Frist, my colleague from Tennessee who was then the majority leader, that we should then change the filibuster rules in order to get an up-or-down vote on the judges.  We knew our goal was right, so we were going to, if we had to, break the rules to change the rules.

As you might guess, the minority, the Democrats at the time, erupted in indignation.  They said this has not been done in the 240 or 250 years of the Senate.  They pointed out the differences between the Senate and the House of Representatives.  Almost every distinguished Member of the Democratic side of the Senate -- the majority leader; Senator Biden, now the Vice President of the United States; Senator Obama, now the President of the United States; Senator Clinton, now the Secretary of State of the United States -- denounced this evil Republican plan to change the rules of the Senate, to in effect break the rules of the Senate –- because the rule says we can only change the rules with 67 votes –- in order to change the filibuster rule.          Here is what the majority leader said in his book, "The Good Fight."

The storm had been gathering all year and word from conservative columnists and in conservative circles was that Senator Frist of Tennessee, who was the majority leader, had decided to pursue a rules change that would kill the filibuster for judicial nominations.  And once you opened that Pandora's box it was just a matter of time before a Senate leader who couldn't get his way on something moved to eliminate the filibuster for regular business as well.  And that, simply put, would be the end of the United States Senate.

That is Senator Reid when he was the minority leader of the Senate.

Today another storm is gathering, and the shoes are reversed.  The majority leader is the one who wants to invoke what he then called the nuclear option.  That was the Democrats' name for what the Republicans were trying to do, and we are the ones who are saying:  Please don't do that; stop and think about this; this is not what you want to do to the Senate.

People who are listening might say:  Wait a minute.  This filibuster business has gotten out of hand.  What is wrong with having a majority vote in the Senate?  Don't we learn in the first grade -- at least we did in Maryville, TN -- if we have an election for the class president everyone raises their hands and whoever gets the majority wins.  That is the American way.

That is the American way except it is not the way of the Senate from the beginning of our country.  We had a Frenchman who wandered through this country in the 1830s, a young man called de Tocqueville.  He wrote a book called "Democracy In America," which is still the finest exposition of our democracy that we have because it was an outsider's look at us.  He saw two great dangers to the United States at the time.  One was Russia.  He was prescient about that.  But the second was what he called the tyranny of the majority -- that in a great, big, complicated country like this that somehow the majority, in its passions and suddenness and enthusiasm, would run over the minorities.  Somehow he must have known we would be a nation filled with minorities; that we would be almost a minority nation, and somehow those minorities needed protection.

What has happened over all those years is that the Senate has stood, as Senator Byrd used to say, as the necessary fence that protected minorities in America from the tyranny of the majority.  That is why we have a Senate, so if a freight train runs through the House it cannot run through here.  It has to slow down and stop and we have to think about it.

That is why we have a tradition in the Senate of unlimited amendment and unlimited debate on any subject until 60 of us decide that is enough -- which is what we are about to do with the Defense authorization bill.  We have had, under the leadership of Senator McCain and Senator Levin, the chairman -- and I give Senator Reid great credit for this as well -- I think it is 90 amendments that have been dealt with.  We will have a cloture vote tomorrow.  It will probably pass.  I will vote for it.  That means it is time to end the debate, time to limit the discussion and come to a conclusion.  That is the way the Senate is supposed to work.

Here is an image of the difference between the House and the Senate.  Most of us know of the work of Robert Caro, who has written the book on Lyndon Johnson.  When I first came to the Senate 10 years ago I read that first chapter in Caro's book, the chapter called "The Desks Of The Senate."  I imagine the Presiding Officer has had a chance to read that as well.  I still say to new Senators or anybody else interested in this body, if they really want to understand the Senate, read Robert Caro's chapter "The Desks Of The Senate." 

He talked about all these desks and how after an election -- just as they will this time -- they move two from over here to over there because Democrats won a couple of seats, and that is the way this works.  This is the image of the Senate where everybody is equal, and it takes 60 to get a result.  The idea is unlimited debate and consideration to protect the minority.  It also reminds us that the people who are out of the majority right now may not be out tomorrow.

What is the image of the House?  The image of the House is that all legislation goes to the House Rules Committee.  I have been there.  David Dreier took me there.  He is the chairman of the House Rules Committee.  It is an ornate office.  Every piece of legislation in the House has to go through the Rules Committee.  Republicans have a narrow majority in the House of Representatives but, guess what, the composition of the Rules Committee is eight Republicans, four Democrats.  What if the Democrats gained a one-vote majority in the House?  Eight Democrats and four Republicans. 

What would happen is any piece of legislation the majority wants to push would run through the House like a freight train. 

That is not what the U.S. Senate is about.  That is why Senator Dodd, in his farewell address, said to those who have never been the minority in the Senate, please be careful before changing these filibuster rules. 

In January, we will have 30 Democratic Members of the U.S. Senate who have never been in the minority.  They have not had a chance to experience what some of us have had a chance to experience.  While I have not been in the Senate all that long by Senate standards -- I have been here 10 years –- I have watched the Senate for a long time.  I first came here in 1967 as a legislative aide to Howard Baker.  Everett Dirksen was the Republican leader and Mike Mansfield was the Democratic leader.  The Senate has never worked perfectly.  Every majority and minority leader will say that. 

In the 1960s it was Senator Williams from Delaware who would object and slow down things.  In the 1970s it was Senator Allen from Alabama.  He would tie up the Senate in complete knots.  Because of the individual rights a Senator has, it was just one Senator.  In the 1980s it was Senator Metzenbaum.  He held up my own nomination to be U.S.  Education Secretary for 3 or 4 months, and there was nothing I could do about it.  I thought that was very unfair, but it was part of this process whereby a Senator can slow down things. 

How do leaders respond to that?  Well, in 2005 I was as angry as anyone about the Bush judges who were not getting an up-or-down vote, but I did not think it was right to break or change the rules of the U.S. Senate.  I didn't want to turn the Senate into the House of Representatives. 

I made two speeches on the floor and suggested what became, in effect, the Gang of 14.  I didn't participate in the gang because my colleague Senator Frist was the Republican leader, and out of respect to him I didn't want to undermine him.  Fourteen Senators, including Senator Pryor and Senator McCain on this side, got together and said we cannot let this happen.  They met and worked and agreed they would not change the rules and would not filibuster.  So when that happened, that meant there could not be a change of the rules by the Republicans and there could not be a filibuster by the Democrats if these 14 Senators agreed with one another.  They then created a compromise solution which is where we are today. 

There have been other ways that leaders have responded.  During the Panama Canal debates in 1978 and 1979, I believe Senator Byrd and Senator Baker were the leaders.  I believe Senator Byrd was the majority leader.  The opponents of the Panama Canal -- and this was a time when the Panama Canal was very unpopular with a lot of people.  According to Senator Byrd, opponents centered their efforts of winning approval of killer amendments.  We all know what those are.  I believe one of the main reasons the majority leader does not like bills to come to the floor is because he thinks some of the amendments offered by the minority are going to be unpleasant for Democrats, or even Republicans, to vote for.  Well, my feeling about that is:  Why would you join the Grand Ole Opry if you don't want to sing?  We come here to debate, amend, and vote. 

Here is what Senator Byrd said:  Opponents centered their efforts on winning approval of killer amendments.  I made it clear that only the leadership amendments and certain clarifying reservations and understandings would be acceptable.  Opponents attempted to circumvent this strategy by offering amendments that were phrased in such a way that Senators would find them difficult to turn down.

At first glance many of the amendments seemed innocuous and pro-American.  Had they succeeded, however, they would have effectively killed the treaty -- this is Senator Byrd.  In all 145 amendments, 26 reservations, 18 understandings, 3 declarations –- for a total of 192 changes -- were proposed. 88 of these were voted on.  In the final analysis, nothing passed that was not acceptable to the joint leadership. 

In other words, the joint leadership sat up there, let everybody vote, let them ventilate, have their say, do their job, and then they defeated them.  They either tabled their amendment or they beat them.  That is what they were able to do.  That is very different from way we are operating today, and that is the way I respectfully suggest we should operate. 

In the 1980s -- and I mentioned it was never perfect -- during the Byrd-Baker era, basically the leaders would put a bill on the floor.  If it was a bill like the one we are currently considering -- the Defense authorization bill -- and it had the support of the chairman and ranking minority member, they would simply open the bill for amendments.  They might get 300 amendments.  They would then ask for unanimous consent to close off amendments and, of course, they would get it because if anybody objected, they would tell them to throw their amendment in there and then they would start voting. 

For example, during the Panama Canal debate, they would table a lot and vote a lot.  They would stay up on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights.  Pretty soon Senators would be thinking about going home or seeing their grandchildren or maybe their amendment was not so important and their bill would either be passed or defeated, but everybody went home thinking:  I have had a chance to be a U.S. Senator.  I may be in the minority, I may be in the majority, but I have given voice to the feelings of the people of my State which is what I was elected to do. 

So is the filibuster rule a problem?  No, the filibuster rule is not the problem.  The problem is if I come down to the floor with an amendment, the majority leader uses a procedural motion to cut me off and I don't get to vote on it.  I don't get to talk about it and I don't get to vote on it. 

To his great credit, he is not doing that with the Defense authorization bill.  He did not do that with the postal reform bill.  There have been a number of other bills this year that proved the Senate can work.  There is even an amendment by the Senator from Kentucky that Members of both sides did not want to vote on.  It had to do with cutting off aid to three Middle Eastern countries.  The administration did not want to vote, but we finally voted and what happened?  We had a huge, great debate.  Many Senators spoke their feelings, and in the end the vote was 81-10 and the amendment failed.  It did not do any damage to anybody.  In fact, it made the Senate look more like what it should be. 

The filibuster is and has been democracy's greatest show:  the right to talk your head off.  We need to get back to the situation where we have committee bills like the Defense authorization bill where we bring them to the floor and the majority leader asks for amendments.  Let us all put our amendments in and let us start voting.  Let's get back to the time where the majority leader and the minority leader, or the committee chairman and the ranking member, have a product they are invested in and they work together to keep it intact.  If they do that, they usually defeat Republican amendments or Democratic amendments, or occasionally an amendment will come along that has so much support that it seems like an improvement to the bill, and it is adopted. 

My purpose today is not to make a hard job harder.  I said at the beginning the majority leader has the toughest job in town and maybe one of the toughest in the country.  My hope is that maybe if he has a few minutes tonight, he would go back home and reread his own book.  He and I agreed at that time that that would be a bad result.  And remember the words he said in 2005 about the value of the filibuster, the value of having a body that protected the minority rights and how damaging it would be to make the Senate like the House. 

I hope the majority leader and the Republican leader could quietly meet and talk this through.  Senator Schumer and I and many others spent a lot of time on this 2 years ago.  It took 6 months and we thought we had an agreement, but somehow it broke down.  There is no reason it should break down.  We can operate the Senate under the rules we have.  We can get bills through committee.  We can get them to the floor.  We can let anybody have an amendment and we can talk about it, vote on it, and pass it or defeat it.  That is what we should be doing. 

I know the majority leader cares about this institution.  I know he cares about it deeply.  He spent his life here devoted to it.  I know he is responding to a variety of suggestions from Members of his caucus as to what is best to do.  I think it is the responsibility of the leaders of both sides and people who have seen this body for a while to remind everyone, particularly those who have never been in the minority, that this is a body to protect the minority.  Any of us can be in the minority at some time.  I know he does not want to destroy the U.S. Senate, but in his words:  If we change the filibuster rule, it would be the end of the United States Senate.  I don't want that to happen.  I don't want that to be the majority leader's legacy, and I don't believe he wants that.  I, as one Senator, am willing to encourage the Republican leader and the majority leader to work together, solve this problem, and get our attention focused back on the big problem facing our country, which is how to get a budget agreement that gets our economy moving again. 

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