- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Senate Democrats are so determined to curtail Republican use of the filibuster to block their legislation that they’ve frozen time — technically speaking — in the hope of hammering out a deal that will prevent what they call an abuse of parliamentary procedure.

On the opening day of the 112th Congress on Wednesday, Senate Democratic leaders used a rare procedural rule that will keep the legislative day open for several days — a move that would allow for rule changes with the approval of a simple majority of the 100-member chamber instead of the usual two-thirds vote.

The tactic only can be used on the first day of a new Congress — hence the value of not declaring the legislative “day” over, regardless of what calendars or the Earth’s rotation might say. And with the Senate to be on recess until Jan. 25, the move would buy filibuster-reform supporters time to work out details and woo supporters.

Democrats, who control the Senate with 53 seats, have complained that Republicans unfairly use the filibuster to kill Democratic bills and paralyze the chamber.

Republicans counter that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, typically refuses to allow Republican amendments on bills and that the filibuster is among the only tools available to block Democratic legislation they oppose.

A filibuster — a catchall term for delaying or blocking a majority vote on a bill by lengthy debate or other procedure — takes 60 votes to overcome and to proceed to a final vote. That means that as few as 41 minority members essentially can block legislation. The Senate now includes 47 Republicans.

The filibuster process does not exist in the House, where simple majorities rule.

Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, has proposed legislation to end the minority party’s right to filibuster the start of debate on a bill. He also wants to end the practice that allows a single senator to place a “secret hold” on measures — another blocking tactic routinely employed by the minority party.

As a compromise to Republicans, Mr. Udall’s plan would guarantee the minority the right to offer amendments to bills.

“The Senate is broken, and today we have an opportunity to start fixing it,” Mr. Udall said. “The Constitution says that ‘each house may determine the rules of its proceedings,’ and today I will submit a rules-reform package that improves accountability and transparency, while preserving minority rights.”

Republicans strongly oppose any Democratic efforts to limit the filibuster process.

“I’m a little amused … that somehow the Senate has been paralyzed for the last couple of years,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican. “Most of the people I know are concerned about what the Senate did, not what it didn’t do.”

“What the filibuster does is say, ‘You’re not going to pass (in) the Senate anything — anything — unless at least some Republicans and some Democrats agree.”

Senate records show the chamber took 91 votes in the two-year session that ended last month to stop filibusters, the Associated Press reported. That compares with 54 in the 2005-06 period when Republicans were in control and two during the eight years that Dwight Eisenhower was president in the 1950s, during which the two parties traded control.

Republicans also are quick to bring up comments from Senate Democrats defending the filibuster when they were in the minority, including former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Mr. Reid and then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Mr. Alexander cited Mr. Obama as having said that if filibusters were broken, “then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.” The Tennesseean then quoted Mr. Reid from 2005: “Some in this chamber want to throw out 214 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power … they think they’re wiser than our Founding Fathers. I doubt that’s true.”

The Democrats’ proposed filibuster reform is far from certain, as some Democratic senators may be reluctant to push for the changes over fears their party could be in the minority after the 2012 elections.

The day began cordially with the ceremonial swearing-in of 35 new and re-elected senators by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., as he served in his dual role as Senate president. Republicans gained six seats in the Senate as a result of the November congressional elections.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the elections show that voters “want lawmakers to cut Washington spending, tackle the debt, rein in government, and to help create the right conditions for private-sector job growth.”

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