One Senator’s modest proposal: Force Senators to actually filibuster

The problem for those who want to do away with the filibuster and restore some functionality to the Senate is that some argue it requires a two thirds vote to make it happen — a virtual impossibility given today’s Senate math. (Update: See below.)

But Senator Jeff Merkley, one of a younger crop of reform-minded Democrats, has thought of a way around this problem: Start with a smaller reform that could make filibustering much more politically difficult than it is right now. Merkley is working behind the scenes to build support for a rules change that would force Senators to actually filibuster on the floor.

Merkley is distributing a memo making this case to colleages, which was sent my way, and I’m told Merkley will bring the idea up at a Senate caucus meeting today. Merkley notes that it’s a myth that there’s currently a way to force Senators to filibuster on the floor, and proposes:

The public believes that filibustering senators have to hold the floor. Indeed, the public perceives the filibuster as an act of principled public courage and sacrifice. Let’s make it so.

Require a specific number of Senators — I suggest five for the first 24 hours, 10 for the second 24 hours, and 20 thereafter — to be on the floor to sustain the filibuster. This would be required even during quorum calls. At any point, a member could call for a count of the senators on the floor who stand in opposition to the regular order, and if the count falls below the required level, the regular order prevails and a majority vote is held.

Under Merkley’s proposed change, if a party or group of Senators oppose bringing a bill to the floor for debate — or opposes ending debate — they will have to sustain continued opposition on the floor of the Senate. If they don’t, the filibuster collapses. The idea is to force the filibuster out into the light of day, where the public can see what’s happening.