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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