- Associated Press - Thursday, August 19, 2010

Those who hold the Senate in low esteem can get a sympathetic ear from some of the chamber’s newest members. These lawmakers also are fed up with the Senate’s ways and would like to change them.

“A graveyard of good ideas” is how freshman Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico sees his new workplace. “Out of whack with the way the rest of the world is,” says another Democratic freshman, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. “Just defies common sense” is the impression of Sen. Claire McCaskill, a first-term Democrat from Missouri, in describing the filibuster-plagued institution.

New members, especially those from the majority party anxious to fulfill their election promises, typically complain about the slow pace of the Senate. But with partisanship pushing the Senate toward petrification, some newcomers are seeking fundamental changes in the way the chamber operates.

Getting their more senior colleagues to go along will not be easy.

Mr. Bennet, the Denver school superintendent appointed to his post after former Sen. Ken Salazar became interior secretary, has put forth an elaborate plan to make the Senate more workable. It includes eliminating the practice known as a “hold” in which a single senator can secretly prevent action on legislation or nominees; ending the ability to filibuster motions to bring a bill up for debate; banning earmarks for private, for-profit companies; imposing a lifetime ban on members becoming lobbyists; and restricting congressional pay raises.

“It was immediately apparent to me that the system was broken,” said Mr. Bennet, who won a hotly contested primary and faces a tough election this fall.

Ms. McCaskill said that while she had great respect for some Senate traditions, secret holds were “where I decided to plant the flag.”

She and other newer Democrats frequently have spoken on the Senate floor to condemn holds. She authored a letter, signed by 68 senators, including 11 Republicans, in which members pledged not to place such holds.

Ms. McCaskill also has worked with conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to bring more transparency to bills passed by “unanimous consent,” meaning they are approved without debate or roll-call votes.

Mr. Udall has what might be the simplest but most radical proposal. When the new Senate session opens next January, he will offer a motion that the Senate adopt rules by a simple majority. That would make it vastly easier for the majority to modify filibuster rules with proposals.

Mr. Bennet, for example, would modify the filibuster rules by raising the threshold level for blocking a bill to 45 votes in the 100-member Senate. Bill supporters now have to get 60 votes to break a filibuster, meaning opponents need just 41 votes to prevail if all senators are present.

“What we have now is minority abuse,” Mr. Udall said. “We have turned over to the minority the ability to run the institution and to block whatever they want to block.”

The New Mexico Democrat argues that the Constitution gives the Senate the authority to make its own rules, but since 1959 the Senate has stipulated that rules continue from one Congress to the next. In 1975, the Senate changed the requirement for ending a filibuster from a two-thirds vote to 60 votes. But it deliberately preserved the two-thirds majority threshold for changing other rules.

Mr. Udall calls his approach the constitutional option. Five years ago, Democrats - the in the minority - called it by the more ominous name of the “nuclear option” when then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, threatened to push through a simple majority rule for overcoming minority Democrats’ opposition to President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

In the end, nothing happened. Mr. Udall’s idea has been put forward several times in the past, Senate historian Don Ritchie said. But “the Senate has always gotten up to the cliff and decided to step back.”

“Some of the people advocating these changes might be very glad they didn’t succeed if they end up in the minority,” he said.

The minority, of course, is always reluctant to give up any authority to influence the process.

“I submit that the effort to change the rules is not about democracy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said at a recent hearing on the filibuster question. “It is not about doing what a majority of the American people want. It is about power.”

There have been only two instances of major changes in rules concerning filibusters: in 1917, when the Senate agreed to a two-thirds supermajority for cutting off debate, and in 1975, when the requirement was reduced again to a three-fifths supermajority.

The upstart Democrats have even received pushback from senior members of their own caucus. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat retiring in 2011 after 36 years in Congress, met with the freshmen Democrats at a dinner earlier this month to defend the current filibuster rules.

“Those ideas are normally being promoted by people who haven’t been here in the minority and don’t understand how the rules, if intelligently used, can help protect against the tyranny of the majority and cause things to slow down,” he told reporters after the meeting.

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