Alexander, Republican senators rally behind traditional filibuster rules

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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Top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, spoke out Tuesday against what Alexander called the “brazenness” of proposed changes by Democrats to the filibuster.

The Senate needs to “change its behavior, not its rule [and] instead of this power grab, the goal should be to restore the Senate to its historic role where the voices of the people can be heard,” said Alexander.

Led by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, Senate Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the Senate, are hoping to make it easier to end filibusters. They are proposing to make it a simple 51-vote majority to end a filibuster rather than the current three-fifths of the Senate requirement.

“Let’s be clear what we mean when we say the word ‘filibuster,’” said Alexander during a speech at the Heritage Foundation. “I go down to the floor to offer an amendment and speak on it. The majority leader says ‘no’ and cuts off my amendment. I object. He calls what I tried to do a filibuster. I call what he did cutting off my right to speak and amend which is what I was elected to do.”

Under current Senate rules, during a legislative debate, a senator can take the floor and speak for as long as he or she wishes, usually giving the chamber fair warning that they are in for a bit of a wait. This delay, or filibuster, lasts until the senator yields his time or until 60 senators vote to end debate and move to vote on the legislation at hand by invoking cloture. Even a motion to invoke cloture can significantly delay legislation on the Senate floor, which gives weight even to the threat of a filibuster.

Top Democrats, including Udall, claim that they were forced to use cloture on several occasions in the last Congress because Republicans unnecessarily delayed legislation using the filibuster for purely political gain. In the upcoming Congress, it will be much harder for Democrats to achieve cloture under the current rules with their reduced majority as a result of November’s midterm elections.

Udall insisted that the “changes will not reward one political party over another,” in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “Rules reform is about restoring good-faith legislating for the betterment of the country. We need to take the backroom deals out of the legislative process and rein in rampant obstruction from individuals … no more secret holds and endless delays by threat of filibuster.”

Dismissing Democratic complaints about he filibuster in a companion op-ed in the Washington Post, McConnell called the proposed filibuster reforms “partisan rule changes.”

Democrats, said McConnell, have already managed to skirt debate and prevent Republicans from offering their own amendments to bills by frequently invoking “cloture,” arguing that the Democrats’ fear of delay tactics stems from Democratic senators using equally sly tactics to push through legislation.

The “Democratic majority’s repeated use of a once-rare procedural gimmick [cloture] that has kept Republicans from amending bills that are brought to the floor,” said McConnell. “This practice, known as ‘filling the amendment tree,’ leads to a question that answers itself: Why would Republicans vote for action on a bill that, we’ve been promised, we’ll be blocked from contributing to in any way?”

Alexander said that the change in rules will allow Democrats to more easily push through legislation without the input, debate and amendments of Republicans.

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