An arcane filibuster tactic has been eliminated from the U.S. Senate, after a vote to change the rules called by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) succeeded last night.
It all started as a relatively minor, even common dispute between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
McConnell had been pushing Reid to hold a vote on President Barack Obama’s jobs bill without alteration: something that many Democrats do not support due to the limits on tax deductions for families earning over $250,000 a year. When the bill inevitably failed, McConnell and Republicans could use it to attack Democrats for voting against their own jobs proposal.
Reid wanted to vote on an altered jobs package that had more support from Democrats, which Republicans would assuredly filibuster. Then he and the Democrats could blame Republicans for blocking jobs legislation.
Just when it looked like Reid had the parliamentary upper-hand and a vote on his favored option seemed to be forthcoming, McConnell filed a motion to suspend the rules after cloture, which was destined to fail because it would require a two-thirds majority to pass. It’s also a tactic that hasn’t been utilized since 1941, according to The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein.
Reid wouldn’t allow it and pulled the so-called “nuclear option,” bringing a vote to the full Senate on whether filibusters by motion after cloture should be allowed. Fifty-one Democrats sided with Reid, making a minor change to the rules that limits the minority party’s ability to forestall the Senate’s business by filing endless motions after a vote to limit debate has been taken.
Some media outlets characterized the move as a vote to kill the ability to filibuster, but this is incorrect. The traditional filibuster, where a Senator speaks for hours upon end, was last used by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in Dec. Republicans, however, have relied on procedural tactics to filibuster virtually all of the Democrats’ agenda since the election of President Obama, purely in an effort to defeat the president in 2012.
But Republicans too supported a similar move to change Senate rules in 2005, when Democrats were blocking President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Almost all the Democrats in Congress were opposed to it then, and congressional Republicans didn’t actually follow through.
The change does not affect the Senate minority’s ability to block legislation before cloture is given, meaning most of the tools in the filibuster toolkit remain intact. However, Reid’s move proves that the rules can be changed to the majority’s benefit, even with little debate.
Many experts in Washington expect the precedent to carry over into future sessions of Congress. It could very well be used against the Democrats one day, and in ways that exert a much greater influence on how the Senate operates.
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