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The U.S. Senate has a new motto: “If it’s broke, don’t fix it.”

Democratic lawmakers had a prime opportunity to end the epic abuse of the filibuster and restore the Senate’s reputation as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” But a gutsy effort by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to make major reforms — reforms that would have allowed the Senate actually to debate and vote on the public’s business — failed this week after a handful of status quo-clinging Democrats denied them the 51 votes they needed to succeed.

There is still hope for eventual reform. Merkley, Udall and Harkin say they will continue their fight in future sessions. And thanks to their efforts, the Senate is close to agreement on a package of modest rule changes that fall short of what’s needed but still could help ease the procedural gridlock in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, the three Democrats proposed changes that would have required that filibuster petitions be filed by at least 10 senators and required members to speak continuously on the floor to keep a filibuster going. (Think “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the 1939 film classic.)

They also proposed eliminating the secret hold, which allows any single senator to anonymously block bills and nominees. Both parties have abused secret holds, but Republicans have raised it to a new level, using it to block dozens of President Obama’s nominees. In the last two congressional sessions, Republicans have brought 275 filibusters — the highest total in history.

The reform package listed 26 senators as co-sponsors when it was introduced. Republicans uniformly objected to the changes, arguing that the filibuster is a time-honored institution that protects the minority from being silenced by the majority.

But Merkley, Harkin and Udall didn’t propose eliminating the filibuster; they wanted to restore it to its original role. They sought to prevent the abuses that have become one of the reasons why Congress has such chronically low approval ratings.

In the just-ended 111th Congress, senators attempted nearly 140 filibusters. By contrast, an average of one bill was filibustered in each session of Congress during the 1950s. Abuse of the filibuster has become routine, reckless and extreme.

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