Talk of changing the filibuster rules by Senate Democrats will come to a head in the next Congress as Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, appears determined to ensure that Republican stall tactics will not delay Democratic plans in President Barack Obama’s second term. According to Politico:
Democrats are threatening to change filibuster rules, in what will surely prompt a furious GOP revolt that could make those rare moments of bipartisan consensus even harder to come by during the next Congress.
Here’s what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering: banning filibusters used to prevent debate from even starting and House-Senate conference committees from ever meeting. He also may make filibusters become actual filibusters — to force senators to carry out the nonstop, talkathon sessions.
Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules.
Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.
”“It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”
The push will happen at the start of the new Congress, when Reid will unveil a rules package certain to have some changes to the filibuster. The exact contents of that package have yet to be finalized, as is the decision on whether to invoke the so-called nuclear option — 51 votes — to push it through. But Democratic senators are urging Reid to take steps ranging from the most draconian one of virtually eliminating the filibuster to more piecemeal changes designed to discourage the use of the stalling tactic.
Senate Democrats, however, were singing a substantially different tune about changing the filibuster rules in 2005 when George W. Bush was in the White House and Republicans held majorities in both chambers. Democrats used filibusters to block 10 of President Bush’s judicial nominees .
Here are some quotes from Senate Democrats in 2005, when the threat of a nuclear option loomed from the GOP side of the Senate: (bolding is mine)
Sen. Barack Obama (D - ILL) 4/25/05
“He hasn’t gotten his way. And that is now prompting a change in the Senate rules that really, I think, would change the character of the Senate forever.”
“…and what I worry about is that you would essentially have two chambers. The House and the Senate but you have simply majoritarian absolute power on either side and that’s just not what the founders intended.”
Sen. Joseph Biden (D - DE) 5/23/05
“This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power grab.”
“…I say to my friends on the Republican side, you may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever. And I pray God when the Democrats take back control we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.”
Sen. Harry Reid (D - NV) 5/18/05
“Mr. President, the right to extend the debate is never more important, when one party controls Congress and the White House. In these cases, a filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government.
“…but no we are not going to follow the Senate rules— no…because of the arrogance of power of this Republican administration.”
REID: “As majority leader, I intend to run the Senate with respect for the rules and for the minority rights the rules protect. The Senate was not established to be efficient. Sometimes the rules get in the way of efficiency. The Senate was established to make sure that minorities are protected. Majorities can always protect themselves, but minorities cannot. That is what the Senate is all about.” (Sen. Reid, Congressional Record, S.11591, 12/8/06)
REID: “For more than 200 years, the rules of the Senate have protected the American people, and rightfully so. The need to muster 60 votes in order to terminate Senate debate naturally frustrates the majority and oftentimes the minority. I am sure it will frustrate me when I assume the office of majority leader in a few weeks. But I recognize this requirement is a tool that serves the long-term interest of the Senate and the American people and our country.” (Sen. Reid, Congressional Record, S.11591, 12/8/06)
REID: “I say on this floor that I love so much that I believe in the Golden Rule. I am going to treat my Republican colleagues the way that I expect to be treated. There is no ‘I’ve got you,’ no get even. I am going to do everything I can to preserve the traditions and rules of this institution that I love.” (Sen. Reid, Congressional Record, S.11591, 12/8/06)
REID: “…one of the most sacred rules of the Senate – the filibuster… It is a unique privilege that serves to aid small states from being trampled by the desires of larger states. Indeed, I view the use of the filibuster as a shield, rather than a sword. Invoked to protect rights, not to suppress them.” (Sen. Reid, Congressional Record, S.434, 1/5/95)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D - NY) 5/18/05
“We are on the precipice of a crisis—a constitutional crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this republic are about to be evaporated by the nuclear option. The checks and balances which say that if you get 51 percent of the vote, you don’t get your way 100 percent of the time. It is amazing it’s almost a temper tantrum.”
…And they want their way every single time. And they will change the rules, break the rules, misread the Constitution, so that they will get their way.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D - NY) 5/23/05
“So this president has come to the majority in the Senate and basically said, ‘Change the rules. Do it the way I want it done.’ And I guess there just weren’t many voices on the other side of the aisle that after the way previous generations of Senators have acted and said, ‘Mr. President, we’re with you. We support you, but that’s a bridge too far. We can’t go there. You have to restrain yourself, Mr. President”
“….You’ve got majority rule and then you’ve got the Senate over here, where people can slow things down—where they can debate—where they have something called the filibuster. You know, it seems like it’s a little less than efficient. Well, that’s right. It is…and deliberately designed to be so.”
“The Senate is being asked to turn itself inside out—to ignore the precedent—to ignore the way our system has worked—the delicate balance that we have obtained that has kept this Constitutional system going for the immediate gratification of the present president.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D - CA) 5/18/05
“The nuclear option, if successful, will turn the Senate into a body that could have its rules broken at any time by a majority of Senators unhappy with any position taken by the minority. It begins with judicial nominations—next will be executive appointments and then legislation.”
“…If the Republican leadership insists on forcing the nuclear option, the Senate becomes ipso facto the House of Representatives, where the majority rules supreme and the party in power can dominate and control the agenda with absolute power.”
Sen Chris Dodd (D - CT) 5/18/05
“I’ve never passed a single bill worth talking about that didn’t have as a lead co-sponsor a Republican. And I don’t know of a single piece of legislation that’s ever been adopted here that didn’t have a Republican and a Democrat in the lead. That’s because we need to sit down and work with each other. The rules of this institution have required that. That’s why we exist.”
“Why have a bicameral legislative body? Why have two chambers? What were the framers thinking about 218 years ago? They understood, Mr. President, that there is a tyranny of the majority.”
Sen Max Baucaus (D-MT) 5/19/05
“This is the way democracy ends—not with a bomb, but with a gavel.”
Senator Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, also said in May of 2005 that “those who would attack and destroy the institution of the filibuster are attacking the very force within the Senate that creates compromise and bipartisanship.”
In a follow up press statement that year on May 23, Senator Durbin said:
“Many of us in the Senate feel that this agreement tonight means that some of the most treasured and cherished traditions of the United States Senate will be preserved, will not be attacked and will not be destroyed.” (Sen. Durbin, “Statement Of Sen. Dick Durbin Regarding The Agreement On Judicial Nominations In The Senate,”
At the time, Democrats held only 44 seats in the upper chamber, so when Republicans proposed to change the filibuster rules for judicial nominees through the nuclear option, Democrats were outraged. Eventually, a bipartisan group of Senators emerged known as the “gang of 14” who laid out a compromise, thus averting any changes to the filibuster rules. According to a 2005 CNN piece :
Under the agreement, three of President Bush’s nominees for appellate courts stalled by Democratic filibusters will go forward and two others will remain subject to filibuster.
The group’s members also agreed that they would oppose attempts to filibuster future judicial nominees except under “extraordinary circumstances.”
What would constitute “extraordinary circumstances” was not defined.
Fourteen senators — seven Democrats and seven Republicans — signed on to the deal.
That bloc is large enough to derail both Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees and any GOP attempt to employ the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules through procedural maneuvers to prevent the tactic from being used.
Could another gang of 14 surface as a result of the upcoming filibuster battle? More importantly, if that happens, one must wonder if such a group would be the ones who ultimately frame a deal for both sides on the fiscal cliff debate.