When you think about the filibuster, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
For many Americans, it’s still the classic 1939 flick, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in which a hoarse, exhausted Sen. Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, uses the filibuster to stop special interests from killing plans for a national boys camp.
The modern Senate filibuster is a different creature altogether, one described by Sen. Jeff Merkley in a meeting Wednesday with The Register-Guard editorial board as a procedure that allows “a small minority” of lawmakers to decide what happens in the Senate and, by extension, in this country.
The Oregon Democrat — along with Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa — has introduced a proposal that would curtail the abuses that in recent years have distorted the time-honored practice, one originally designed to ensure that a minority of senators cannot be silenced by a majority.
Contrary to critics’ claims, the reforms would not wipe out the filibuster. “We’re not talking about getting rid of the filibuster,” Merkley says. Instead, the reform package would end the use of filibusters on procedural votes. It also would require “talking filibusters,” in which senators would have to be on the floor and actually speaking if they want to block legislation.
While a cloture vote of 60 senators still would be required to break a filibuster, the number of senators required to hold the floor would increase each day. The bill also would limit filibusters to actual votes to pass bills on the Senate floor. Filibusters currently are allowed at every step of the legislative process, from votes on conference committees to amendments.
The Merkley-Udall-Harkin proposal would reduce debate time on nominees after a cloture vote from 30 hours to just two hours, allowing the Senate to get more nominations to the floor. And it would eliminate the secret hold, which allows a single senator to anonymously block bills and nominees.