With Filibuster Move Senate Inches Closer to Democracy

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Last January, before the 113th Congress convened, Bill spoke with Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, about the need to eliminate the silent filibuster in the Senate. Years ago, senators who wished to make a stand on an issue had to literally stand, and talk, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style, bringing their grievances to the floor and making them known to the American public.

But in recent years, senators could filibuster — essentially placing a hold on a nominee or a piece of legislation — without laying out their reasons for doing so. They could even filibuster anonymously. And Republicans were increasingly doing so to hold up not only legislation but even the most apolitical presidential nominees. As a result, the Senate became less and less productive.

Cohen was opposed to this style of filibuster. “We believe that what a democracy means is that the American people are entitled to get discussion, debate and eventually a vote on the critical questions of the day. But we haven’t had that in decades in the US Senate,” he told Bill.

Today, that changes — at least partially. The New York Times reports:

The Senate voted on Thursday to eliminate the use of the filibuster against most presidential nominees, a move that will break the Republican blockade of President Obama’s picks to cabinet posts and the federal judiciary. The change is the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.

The vote was one that members of both parties had threatened for the better part of a decade, but had always stopped short of carrying out. This time, with little left of the bipartisan spirit that helped seal compromises on filibuster rule changes in the past, there was no last-minute deal to be struck.

The vote was 52 to 48.

It looked as if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would overhaul the filibuster in January, when Cohen spoke to Bill, but it didn’t happen. He threatened to do so again this summer, but backed off when Republicans agreed to let some nominees through.

But this round was different because the minority didn’t object to Obama’s nominees per se. Rather, they rejected his authority to nominate anyone to the influential DC Circuit Court of Appeals — the second most powerful court in the land. A senior Democratic aide told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post that Harry Reid had “concluded [that] Senate Republicans have no plausible way of retreating from the position they’ve adopted in this latest Senate rules standoff.”

Republicans have argued that in pushing nominations, Obama is “packing” the court, and have insisted that Obama is trying to tilt the court’s ideological balance in a Democratic direction — which is to say that the Republican objection isn’t to the nominees Obama has chosen, but to the fact that he’s trying to nominate anyone at all.

Reid believes that, having defined their position this way, Republicans have no plausible route out of the standoff other than total capitulation on the core principle they have articulated, which would be a “pretty dramatic reversal,” the aide continues.

“They’ve boxed themselves in — their position allows them no leeway,” the aide says, in characterizing Reid’s thinking.

Reid felt he had little left to lose. He changed the filibuster rules, a move known fatalistically as the nuclear option.

We reached out to Cohen for his thoughts about today’s events. Here’s what he said:

Today’s Senate action by Majority Leader Reid and most Democratic senators changing the procedure on executive and judicial nominations (with the exception of the Supreme Court) restores an important principle of our democracy.

We commend Leader Reid for taking this principled stand against gridlock and obstruction and to restore the constitutional authority of the President to fill vacancies.

After months of Republican empty promises and broken agreements, Leader Reid had no other choice but to put forward the procedural motion. The Senate has changed application of the rules at least 18 times in the last 35 years, though not necessarily regarding nominations. In 1980, then Majority Leader Byrd used the exact same procedure to eliminate filibusters on a motion to proceed to nominations.

The Senate action re-enforces the intent of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the US Constitution, which clearly states that the Senate’s obligation of advice and consent is based on majority support, not super majority support. This is a good first step toward restoring a Senate that functions as an integral part of our democracy.

Watch Bill’s full conversation about the filibuster with Larry Cohen:

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  • shannon oakley

    Here’s to Reid! Enough of the ruthless Republican tactics. Now let us move forward.

  • Mike

    Harry Reid and President Obama either lied 8 years ago or they’re lying now. http://www.ijreview.com/2013/11/96499-hypocrisy-face-watch-senate-democrats-obama-opposed-stripping-filibuster-2005/

  • Anonymous

    Democrats may have occasionally used a filibuster to block a nomination or a legislative effort by Republicans. But they never did it so irresponsibly as the Republicans have done under Mitch McConnell.

    The filibuster has been allowed to persist in the Senate only because Senators used it sparingly. The fact that during the Obama Administration it has become the routine habit of Republican Senators to filibuster every significant bill and every appointment has made the filibuster no longer tenable. This Senate rule change is overdue.

  • Silky Wiley

    Inches closer to degenerate democracy….

  • Anonymous

    Interesting the contrast in adverbs & adjectives when describing the frequency of using the filibuster rule.. “The Democrats may have occasionally used a filibuster” vs “every significant bill” or “every appointment” We see how we want see the facts. Many folks now wish the conservatives would have had a successful filibuster against Obamacare bill..Senator Carl Leven wisely was looking down the road on the breaking of the senate rules.. He was more concerned about the long term affect on the body & he & some other dems voted against the rule change. The senate is now a different body not a better legislative body.. only worse.. Wait till the conservative bring a far far right judge to the senate for confirmation when they are in the majority.. The liberals will regret this vote except Sen Levin.

  • Anonymous

    `Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a conservative could present the opposing view & values then the viewers could get a fully informed position on the issues. Then they could form their own opinion. Changing the 200 yr old rule of the senate should not be taken lightly for political reasons only. I would remind the leading Democrats position on this issue in 2005.. They strongly opposed it.. Obama, Biden, Reid, & others.

  • Justin King

    The “nuclear option” puts us more into the Parliamentary system of politics, and that is GOOD.

    I’ve been living primarily in OZ since ’87, and the Parliamentary system has shown itself to be SUPERIOR in a majority of ways.

  • Justin King

    NAIVE.

  • Justin King

    “eventually a vote”– is the crux of this article & the democratic ideal.

  • cgmcle

    From the founding of the country through 2008, 86 filibusters have been conducted to prevent votes on presidential nominations of judges and executive branch appointees. Since Obama took office in January 2009, there have been 82 such filibusters.

    For the first 215 years or so, 1 filibuster every 2 1/2 years, on average.

    During Obama’s administration, 1 filibuster every 3 weeks.

  • Roland

    “let’s not pretend that the Dems didn’t do the exact same “ruthless” thing when Bush was in office.”
    So I guess that John Roberts is not really Chief Justice?
    Roland

  • Roland

    “Wait till the conservative bring a far far right judge to the senate for confirmation”
    Like Scalia, Alito, Thomas or Roberts?

    “… when they are in the majority.”
    Or when pigs fly. RIP GOP
    Roland

  • Roland

    `Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a conservative could present the opposing view & value”
    Thet can and do everywhere else.
    Roland

  • Roland

    And Obama’s Congresses have made FDR’s GOP “do nothing Congress” seem like a gang of hyperactive overachievers.
    Roland

  • Roland

    The previous filibusters were real filibusters; I recall Strom Thurmond spending a week reading his grocery and laundry lists and whatnot in the well to filibuster Civil Rights. Lately the “silent filibuster” is more like black-balling; it can be exercised without effort anonymously.
    Roland

  • Anonymous

    ^ weak attempt to hang the obstruction on Obama and Democrats. Fact is, this is a straight up Republican phenomenon under Obama

  • Anonymous

    Conservatives CAN present their views and inform citizens, but they’ve chosen silent anonymous filibusters instead. A silent filibuster doesn’t inform citizens about an issue. An anonymous filibuster doesn’t allow voters to hold the politician responsible accountable for their actions. Eliminating the silent anonymous filibuster doesn’t weaken democracy, it STRENGTHENS democracy.

  • Anonymous

    Your thinking follows what the Democrats in the Senate thought as well. Short turn fixes are not good for long term governance ..You have a right to your opinion..I hope you don’t forget your opinion in the years ahead..

  • Anonymous

    The bills that are sitting in Harry Reids desk are not brought to the floor of the senate for discussion.. He has stopped most ofl the bills from the House. The congress has failed because BOTH sides do nothing but smear their opposition & the folks suffer. A 200 yr old that existed for good reason has been thrown out with out serious thought. for political reasons

  • Anonymous

    Facts, generally, have a liberal bias. We can’t change that, it’s just a force of Nature, like gravity.

    George W Bush broke the country, Barack Obama was hired to fix it.
    Mitch McConnell determined that he would not allow Barack Obama to fix anything.
    Harry Reid, finally, grabbed the monkey-wrench out of Mitch McConnell’s hand.

  • Anonymous

    When John Roberts was appointed to the S. Court he left a vacancy in the DC Circuit court which the GOP tried to fill. The Democrat Senators filibustered the replacement & stated that we did not need any more judges due to a low work load.. My how things change when the table is turned. The work load is reported to be llow & there are 8 judges split 4-4 on party lines but Reid & the liberals want to pack the court now. Yes the Democrats did hold up appointments. but then who cares about the facts.. Strange sense of fair play.. when it comes to the 2nd most powerful court in the land.

  • Roland

    Thanks for the update from Faux Noise.
    Roland

  • Roland

    He should have inserted it somewhere.
    Roland

  • Roland

    Janet Reno has a better shot at Miss Universe (cum: Who Wants to be The Next Mrs. Trump) than the traitors have of holding the House, much less gaining the Senate. As for the White House, the GOP does provide good, reliable entertainment, the gift that keeps on giving. If I could, I would hire Sarah, Michele, Tim, Chris and Paul and put Lorne Michaels into retirement.

    At his best, Paul even looks like a psycho,
    Roland

  • Roland

    Non sequitur. Typical Tea bag ploy. When losing restart.

    Roland

  • todawgs

    The American people should filibuster all of the corrupt elected lackies, which would be all of them, for stealing air; they are all oxygen thiefs. They are breathing the same air as a legitimate human being, and breathing too much of it. That process needs to be stopped!!!

  • Roland

    Most everything coming from the house was childish nonsense, unworthy of consideration.
    Roland

  • Anonymous

    Gop are masterminds of political dysfunction.
    If minority, through practices of gerrymandering (in House) and filibuster (in Senate), get to pull all the strings of Congress then the purpose of elections is what exactly?

    In history of our nation, 23 district court nominees have been filibustered –
    20 WERE OBAMA NOMINEES!

    Anything wrong with this picture?

  • Paris Pepoon

    Mr Cohen is not correct about the majority votes in the Constitution Article 2, Section 2. Please look it up. It states they need a 2/3 vote. Please make sure your producers confirm their information. This was so easy to do.

  • Paris Pepoon

    I have, why can’t I see anything?

  • Seychelle Cannes

    Hope the Tea Party right never reach a majority.