The politics of obstruction

Republican tactics in the U.S. Senate may finally force filibuster rule changes

When pushed far enough, everyone has a breaking point, and it appears Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has reached his. In a move that will be welcome to first-term Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, Reid is threatening to finally take action to rein in Republicans' abuse of the filibuster to obstruct virtually everything in the upper chamber, despite being in the minority.

Reid's threat is to use the "nuclear option," also known as the "constitutional option," to change Senate rules with a simple majority vote of at least 51 senators.

The filibuster is the Senate tradition that allows a member to block action on legislation unless 60 senators vote to invoke "cloture" and end debate. The idea is that the filibuster acts as a check on the power of the majority party and contributes to collaboration and compromise in what members are fond of referring to as "the world's greatest deliberative body."

There was a time when this tactic was used rarely, reserved for truly momentous issues. And filibusters were really filibusters — that is, a senator would rise to address the chamber and continue speaking until his voice gave out or his colleagues mustered 60 votes to stop him.

That uniquely American tradition, dramatized in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the 1939 Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart, no longer applies. These days, minority Republicans use the "silent filibuster," simply saying they will filibuster and forcing the majority Democrats to muster 60 votes or not conduct any business at all.

Although still a freshman senator, Merkley has become a major proponent of filibuster reform. In a profile article in The New Republic, the Oregon Democrat notes that Lyndon Johnson, in six years as Senate majority leader, filed for cloture to stop a filibuster once, while Reid has had to do it 391 times.

What has pushed Reid to the breaking point is the GOP's use of the tactic to block President Obama's nominees to federal agencies and federal courts. Again, there was a time when the opposition party gave a president the freedom to select the people he wanted in his administration out of respect for the office. No longer.

This being the Senate, Reid isn't actually threatening to end the filibuster entirely. In fact, reports indicate he may propose to stop the tactic only for agency appointments, leaving judicial nominations still subject to obstruction. To be fair, Democrats also used the filibuster against judicial nominees when they were in the minority, but the GOP has taken obstruction to new levels.

Still, the Republicans are howling. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Reid of threatening the very existence of the Senate itself, and darkly warned his counterpart to think of "the future of our country."

Despite such overheated rhetoric, we're confident the nation's future is not at risk, and would be made better by some judicious tweaking of a tradition that is being cynically exploited by Republicans to obstruct what they cannot defeat any other way.

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