Thursday, December 20, 2007


Threat of filibusters frustrates Democrats

By Ken Delanian, USA TODAY


WASHINGTON Halfway into the 110th Congress, the Senate is on pace to shatter the record of bills blocked by the threat of filibuster, illustrating the extent to which the narrow Democratic majority has been stymied by a tradition that arose decades after the Constitution was written.

Three major initiatives of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "100 Hours" agenda have been blocked or undermined in the Senate by the Democrats failure to get the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate and hold an up-or-down vote.

Although Democrats weren't shy about gumming up the works during the years of the Republican majority that ended in January, some are becoming frustrated with the growing use of what they see as an anti-democratic tactic.  "It's a barrier to everything we do in the House of Representatives," Pelosi told reporters during a year-end interview Wednesday. "I think the 60 votes is not really representing the will of the people."

Filibusters are not part of the Constitution, and they were not allowed under the original rules of the Senate. Filibustering didn't emerge until the late 1830s, according to research by attorney Martin Gold, a former Senate procedural adviser. For most of the 20th century, the filibuster was used sparingly, most often by a coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats to block civil rights legislation. Now, the threat of it is employed frequently by the minority, at a rate never before seen.

Actual filibusters haven't been used for years. One of the last was in 1992, when New York Republican Alfonse D'Amato crooned South of the Border on the Senate floor during an ultimately fruitless 15-hour talkathon to preserve a tax break for a typewriter company. These days just the promise of one, even by a single senator, is enough to kill a bill if proponents can't muster 60 votes to end debate and hold a vote.

Both parties block bills

This year it's usually been Senate Republicans who have come together to block Democrat proposals, most notably the many attempts to include withdrawal timetables in Iraq war funding. But not always: A bill to stave off deportation for certain school-age illegal immigrants was blocked by a minority that included senators from both parties. And the deciding vote to filibuster an effort to increase taxes on the oil industry was cast by Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from oil-rich Louisiana.

Some Democrats argue the Senate rules are one reason public approval of Congress is so low. The public doesn't understand cloture, holds and unanimous consent, and just sees a Congress tied in knots, said Robert Weiner, a public relations executive and former House Democratic aide who wants the Senate to rewrite its rules to curb filibusters.

"It's stopping the agenda that the American people elected both bodies to enact," Weiner said.

Republicans counter that they are blocking bills more often because Democrats have failed to forge consensus in an increasingly partisan atmosphere.

"The way you accomplish things in the Senate is in the middle," GOP leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Wednesday. "Neither side totally dominates the Senate, no matter who's up or down in the numbers."

A record is set

The Senate this year has held 62 votes known as cloture votes to cut off debate, the highest number ever recorded in a two-year congressional session, according to the Senate clerk's office. Thirty-one times, the majority has failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to proceed with the bill.

The highest number of failed cloture votes in any previous Congress was 41 in 1995-96 after Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in decades and budget battles with President Clinton led to a government shutdown. There also were 33 votes held this year under an agreement that 60 votes were required for passage, according to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

When Democrats took control of Congress in January, the House passed seven initiatives in the first 100 hours. Some lobbying reform, a minimum wage hike, expanding stem cell research and reducing college loan costs passed both houses. President Bush vetoed the stem cell bill and the other three became law.

Three were blocked or undermined by failure to win 60 Senate votes: A bid to roll back tax breaks for the oil industry, a bill to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and a policy that all tax cuts or new spending must be offset by cuts or revenue elsewhere. In the latter case, an effort to pay for $50 billion in tax relief for the middle-class by closing a tax loophole for hedge fund managers failed to muster 60 votes in the Senate Tuesday night.

In 2005, after Democrats had blocked a series of judicial nominations through threat of filibuster, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., considered changing Senate rules to stop certain filibusters under what was called "the nuclear option." Democrats, including Reid, protested and Frist cut a deal instead.  Reid remains opposed to a rule change, spokesman Jim Manley said.

Some analysts, including congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, have urged Reid to force Republicans to engage in actual filibusters, even if it takes weeks of round-the-clock debate.  Reid nodded in that direction by forcing an all-night session on Iraq in July, complete with cots. But nothing changed.

"We hear a lot of Republicans boasting because of their unprecedented obstruction," a frustrated-sounding Reid told reporters Tuesday. "Who's winning? The American people are losing."

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