Senate Democrats Threaten To Reignite Filibuster Reform

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The Senate’s leading champion of filibuster reform called for renewing the effort to weaken the minority’s obstruction power, concluding that a modest rules change enacted in January has failed to discourage Republicans from grinding the chamber to a halt.

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the author of a proposal to place more of the burden of sustaining a filibuster on the minority party, including forcing filibustering senators to speak on the floor, echoed remarks by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) earlier in the day about the need to revisit filibuster reform.

“Senate Republicans have demonstrated that they have absolutely no intention of ending their assault on the ability of the U.S. Senate to function,” Merkley told TPM, saying he had hoped the bipartisan rules change would ease gridlock. “Many of my colleagues are absolutely beside themselves with frustration, and that frustration is rapidly turning to fury.”Senate Republicans have unleashed a string of filibusters since the rules reform deal, which did not change the 60-vote threshold, and was enacted in January. They include the first-ever filibuster of a secretary of defense nominee (Chuck Hagel), a letter by 43 senators vowing to filibuster any nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the filibuster of a bill to avoid sequestration, and the filibuster of judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan. It was the Halligan filibuster Wednesday morning that set off Durbin and Merkley.

“I know that my leadership is incredibly determined to make this body work,” Merkley said, adding that the Senate GOP’s “unacceptable conduct .. in such a short period” shows that they have “no interest in enabling the Senate to function.” He cited earlier remarks by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and Wednesday’s comments by Durbin on the floor, that if the January deal failed to ease gridlock, Democrats would reconsider rules reform.

Durbin, vexed by the Senate GOP’s filibuster of the nomination of Halligan to a coveted seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, said: “I hate to suggest this, but if this is an indication of where we’re headed, we need to revisit the rules again. … I’m sorry to say it because I was hopeful that a bipartisan approach to dealing with these issues would work. … But if this Caitlin Halligan [filibuster] is an indication of things to come, we’ve got to revisit the rules.”

Merkley — whose efforts to enact a more robust plan that ends silent filibusters and makes obstruction more onerous were quashed by Democratic leaders months ago — agreed.

“I certainly share Senator Durbin’s statement that if this is going to be the Republican behavior, we’re going to have to review the agreement that was struck so recently,” he said. “Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, folks will soon be concluding that there’s no intention to honor the spirit of the agreement. … We as senators have a responsibility to the American people to have this chamber function.”

The Oregon Democrat spoke to TPM while Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was mounting an hours-long talking filibuster on the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director. He said that’s how all filibusters should work.

“Rand Paul is saying ‘I have the courage of my conviction, I’m taking a stand and I want the people of America to know it.’ And that’s the way it absolutely should be if you’re working to block a nominee. You should be taking that responsibility,” Merkely said. “And I applaud him for doing that.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.
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