The filibuster: a fixture in the Senate, but one Merkley says needs new limits

WASHINGTON — After a year spent watching Republicans throw everything but the kitchen sink in the path of Democrats’ agenda, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley thinks it’s time to change how the Senate works.

The Oregon Democrat’s target is the most potent tool of the minority party: the filibuster, which, when invoked, delays work on a given bill or nomination and requires time-consuming votes, with 60 senators agreeing, to get things moving again.

“They’re simply going to try to throw bricks at everything,” Merkley said. “It is out of control.”
To speed up Senate business, Merkley has had informal talks with his colleagues about ways to limit the filibuster, including restricting its use when confirming administration nominees or spending bills, or doing away with the tool when majorities are small, so a minority party’s objections don’t bring business to a halt.

Senators in the majority party have long complained about filibusters sapping their voter-given strength, but it’s been more than a quarter-century since they’ve taken a significant step to reduce the maneuver’s power.

Minority parties have a history of holding up the agenda of the party in control. And the idea that the Senate should take its time has been around since the nation’s birth. George Washington famously told Thomas Jefferson that “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

Congressional scholars say it’s probably unlikely that Democrats will manage to change things this time, either. But they agreed that minority parties have become more willing to use filibusters to delay Senate business. Statistics of votes to end filibusters — called invoking cloture — compiled by the nonpartisan U.S. Senate Historian’s Office, found those votes more than doubled in the 2007-08 Congress to a historical record of 112. The chamber is on pace for about 80 cloture votes in the 2009-10 Congress, which would be the second-highest total.

The most blatant example of obstruction, Merkley said, has been the health care bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve. Rather than debating the merit of critical issues, like a public insurance option or abortion coverage, “there was no good faith effort to bring those sorts of amendments, and that means we lost an opportunity for what could have been a series of very valuable discussions and votes,” Merkley said.

But Merkley said he wants to divorce his effort to reform filibuster rules from current politics. That’s why he’s batted around the idea of reforms that wouldn’t go into effect for years, so neither party would clearly benefit.

The trick, Merkley said, is finding a way to let individual senators take a stand on important issues, without requiring a supermajority for everyday business.

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