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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Filibuster Reform: Jan. 5…or Later?

On January 5th the Senate will consider proposals to change the body’s rules to implement filibuster reform (See Ari Berman’s Alternet post on filibuster reform for a good update). Like many progressive Democrats, I say it’s long overdue and much-needed to restore majority rule, which is a central feature of functioning democracy. But there are three “what if” questions all Democrats should think about over the next 18 days:
1. What happens if we succeed, then in 2012, we lose both the presidency and our senate majority?
2. Would filibuster reform then mean we have greased the skids for Republicans to reverse everything we have achieved during the Obama Administration?
3. Might it be better to postpone filibuster reform until after we see what happens in the 2012 elections?
If I sound a little schitzy here, it comes from weighing the negative consequences of the filibuster since 2008 (and before) against the destruction the Republicans could launch if they dominate all three branches of government, with no filibuster threat. Yes, the threat of a filibuster has cost Dems dearly in terms of the public option and a host of other reforms we could have enacted. But if we keep it, and the Republicans take the white house and senate, we will likely be able to use the filibuster to prevent them from doing their worst. Also, with the GOP controlling the House, if we implement reform on Jan 5, it may not help Dems much, other than shaking loose some judicial nominations in the senate.
Yes, all of this is based on the worst case electoral scenario, but one that is not all that far-fetched, given the current economic reality. I don’t place much value on the “institutionalist” argument of some opponents of filibuster reform, which seems to me is pretty much based on maintaining a form of senate domination, authorized by finagling the rules, as opposed to being expressly granted by the Constitution. But I think we have to at least think through strategic and tactical considerations of the worst case scenario before piling on the filibuster reform bandwagon.
If Obama is reelected in 2012, on the other hand, the risk to Dems of implementing filibuster reform after that election goes down considerably, regardless of which party wins the senate. He can veto bills and make it stick, unless the Republicans have two-thirds of Senate votes for an override.
There are two strong arguments for implementing filibuster reform on January 5: 1. it may be our best shot at it, since some Republicans may support it as part of their bet on a rosier 2012 for their party, and 2. Obama has a good chance of winning in 2012, in which case filibuster reform on Jan 5 won’t hurt Dems.
After weighing all of these considerations, the wise course may be to go ahead and get it done. Filibuster reform is a good thing on principle. But the timing of it can be a little tricky, and a little more discussion about it can’t hurt.

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