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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Quiet Death of Filibuster Reform

It won’t be official until a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting this afternoon, but it’s abundantly clear that the hopes raised during the inter-session break of Democrats lining up behind a package of serious filibuster reforms have been dashed.
Aside from the fact that there are less than 50 Democratic votes for major changes in the threshold for cutting off debate, there aren’t 50 Democratic votes for the proposition that a simple majority can set the rules for the Senate in each Congress, which was the premise of this whole “reform” exercise. Here’s HuffPo’s Sam Stein on this key point:

Some Democrats are wary of exercising the so-called “constitutional option” — which would allow them to set the chamber rules with just 50 votes — pushing instead to settle for a smaller package of reforms capable of garnering the 67 votes needed for a midsession rules change.

This is another step back after an earlier step back: the substitution of very modest measures sponsored by Sens. Udall and Merkley that didn’t really touch the 60 vote requirement, instead of the more significant reforms promoted earlier by Sen. Dick Durbin. Now even the Udall-Merkley package isn’t doable, says Stein:

The Udall-Merkley approach, said one former Senate aide following the talks, was more or less dead because “the votes aren’t there” for doing something via the constitutional option. And since that means Democrats need 14 Republican votes, the party was all but assured to settle on the low-hanging fruit.

The “low-hanging fruit” will at best involve reductions in the number of mid-level administration appointments requiring Senate confirmation, and changes in post-cloture debate and amendment procedures to make filibusters less attractive on relatively minor legislation.
While unanimous Republican opposition to real filibuster reform is the ultimate problem, it’s important to acknowledge that progressive ambivalence on the subject had a lot to do with this very disappointing outcome. Some Democrats are clearly looking ahead to the possibility of a GOP takeover of the Senate in 2012 (a real possibility even in a good Democratic year because of the Senate landscape). And they’re more concerned about their ability to defend the programmatic and policy objects of conservative wrath than to enact good legislation.
That may make some sense in the short run, but it should be obvious that the party of public-sector activism is in trouble if it supports procedures in the Senate that make progressive governance virtually impossible. Given the inherent and disproportionate power of small states in the Senate, there’s no telling if or when Democrats will ever secure 60 votes in that chamber again and obtain an outside chance of enacting legislation against the will of a united opposition. Throwing away the chance for even modest filibuster reforms sets a very bad precedent, and individual Democratic senators who made this happen need to come forward and explain themselves.

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