Democrats could be labeled hypocrites if they move forward with a plan to change filibuster rules in January, some political observers with historical memories believe.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told an audience at the liberal Center for American Progress this week that the filibuster could be on the chopping block in January if Democrats retain control of the Senate.
The very idea has others crying foul.
“The Democrats are completely duplicitous on this issue,” says Brian Darling, the Heritage Foundation’s Senate expert. “In 2005, the Democrats thought the filibuster was the greatest thing when they wanted to filibuster Republican judges. Now the shoe’s on the other foot, and they don’t want the filibuster anymore.”
Democrats, including then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, vigorously defended the filibuster during the 2005 fight over eliminating the filibuster of judicial nominees.
During a news conference on May 17, 2005, Obama invoked his experience as a constitutional law professor as he assailed the Republican effort as a violation of 200 years of Senate precedent.
“What the constitution essentially says is that not only does the Senate have the power to advise and consent, but the very structure of the Constitution would argue that the minority party is empowered to force majorities to come to some forms of accommodation,” Obama said. “And that’s what we’re asking for here.”
Darling contends that changing the filibuster rule would transform the Senate into a miniature version of the House, where the minority has no rights — echoing a comment Sen. Kent Conrad made on April 2, 2001. The North Dakota Democrat now wants to change the filibuster rules.
Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut stands as a notable exception in the Democratic caucus, warning his colleagues that changing the filibuster would be a mistake.
Dodd reminded the Senate Rules and Administration Committee Wednesday that Democrats have used the filibuster to slow or stop Republican legislation when they held the minority.
Repealing or modifying the filibuster would harm Democrats if they ended up in the minority again, Dodd says.
Nonetheless, Merkley tells Newsmax he still wants to change the filibuster.
Senior GOP senators tell Newsmax they will not allow Democrats to change the filibuster rule, and they will not try to change it themselves to thwart the Democrats If they regain control of the Senate in January.
“No! no! no! that will not happen,” says a senior GOP senator who asked not to be named.
Merkley, a freshman Democrat, contends that Republican efforts to use the filibuster against the president’s agenda — most recently last week’s effort to attach the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell to a defense funding bill — reflects problems in the Senate.
“The Senate is deeply dysfunctional, much more so than when I worked here in ’75-’76,” Merkley says. “The problem can be solved by plans to wrestle with the rules that were last changed in 1975. The Constitution says the Senate can change its rules after each two-year cycle, which can used to tweak the minority’s ability to obstruct.”
The senator cites the increasing votes on ending debate, known as cloture, since the Senate reduced the number of votes from 67 to 60 in 1975. According to the U.S. Senate website, 27 cloture votes occurred in the 94th Congress following the rule change, and that number reached an all-time high in the 110th Congress with 112 cloture votes. Seventy-five such votes have taken place during this Congress.
Merkley also alleges that Republican senators have placed secret holds on President Obama’s nominees, issued amendments and points of order he considers frivolous, and used parliamentary tactics to keep bills bottled in committee.
“I hope for a significant debate on this in January,” Merkley says. “If you need a supermajority to pass legislation, it makes legislation worse, not better.”
The Oregon senator endorses a proposal Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, made last spring that would reduce the number of senators required to break a filibuster over the course of successive votes.
Merkley, however, declines to say what specific change he plans to vote for in January. But he suggests throwing a bone to the minority party by allowing it to offer a guaranteed number of amendments as an incentive to operate in a more bipartisan fashion.
Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation’s Darling puts the problems at the Democrats’ feet, saying: “The Democrats have had a 60-vote majority for much of this Congress, and they only have themselves to blame if they didn’t pass legislation that they wanted to pass.”
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