Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tools On Rules


Thursday the Senate voted on a series of rules changes that will guide its procedures for the next two years. Some had the idealistic, albeit completely unrealistic, hope that the filibuster rule could be made less onerous to democracy, or even abolished. Given the outsize egos of the members of the ruling elite all but the tiniest handful of senators come from, that, I'm sorry to say, was never going to happen. Five proposals got voted on, the first of which, Ron Wyden's to abolish secret holds, S. Res. 28, is very good news. First off, it passed 92-4, only a flailing and desperate John Ensign and the 3 most extremist teabagger senators-- Jim DeMint, Rand Paul and Mike Lee-- voting against it. Even lunatic fringe rightists like Toomey, Vitter, Kyl, Rubio, Sessions, Inhofe, and Ron Johnson voted with the Democrats on this one.

S. Res. 29, Mark Udall's proposal to permit the waiving of the reading of an amendment if the text has been posted for 72 hours, wasn't as big a deal. It passed as well, 81-15. It seems that Reid and Miss McConnell had already hammered out an agreement between themselves on this one to speed up the pace of the near-moribund body. This time the kooks got themselves together in opposition to something smacking of progress. The 15 "no" votes were all from far right extremists and determined obstructionists: Tom Coburn (R-OK), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC). John Ensign (R-NV), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY), Jim Risch (R-ID), Marco Rubio (R-FL). Jeff Sessions (KKK-AL), John Thune (R-SD), Pat Toomey (R-PA) and-- what senatorial tea party would be complete without Diaper Boy?-- David Vitter (R-LA). The 15 were basically telling McConell to shove his agreement with Reid up his ass.
As part of the compromise, announced Thursday afternoon on the Senate floor, Reid and McConnell agreed not to use the so-called "constitutional option" in this Congress or the next one to change Senate rules by a simple-majority vote.

Senators will no longer be allowed to place secret holds on legislation and nominees.

The number of executive branch positions subject to confirmation will be reduced by about a third. The Senate now must confirm about 1,400 job appointments in the executive branch, according to a Senate aide familiar with the deal.

Senators will no longer be allowed to force chamber clerks to read aloud amendments if those amendments have been posted ahead of time for public review.

Reid and McConnell have also entered into a gentlemen’s agreement to reduce the frequency of filibusters of motions to begin consideration of legislation.

McConnell has also promised to reduce the number of times the minority will block efforts to begin debate on legislation. Reid, in exchange, has pledged to limit the number of times he will refuse Republicans opportunities to offer amendments.

The debate over healthcare repeal isn't covered in the gentlemen's agreement. And the biggies-- the proposals to get a little democracy into the Senate-- failed, of course. Tom Harkin's S. Res. 8, co-sponsored by Dick Durbin, Barbara Mikulski and Jeanne Shaheen, would have lowered the number of votes needed to shut down a filibuster. It failed miserably, 12-84. The only senators big enough to get over their egos and vote for it were Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tom Harkin (D-IA), John Kerry (D-MA), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Tom Udall (D-NM).

Tom Udall's and Jeff Merkley's attempts to disable the ability of a small minority of senators to thwart democracy were both defeated more narrowly. Udall's S. Res. 10 went down 44-51, every Republican voting "no" and then being joined by conservative Democrats Max Baucus, Herb Kohl, Mark Pryor and Jim Webb and by Jack Reed and Harry Reid. Merkley's bill got a little closer but was beaten 46-49, again, every Republican voting "no," and this time joined by Baucus, Carl Levin, Pryor and-- presumably so he can bring it up again-- Harry Reid. As NPR summed it up, the filibuster lives on.
Senators were emphatic in their votes against limiting the filibuster, a treasured right of minorities trying to prevent majorities from running roughshod over them. Many Democrats, while now in the majority, envisioned a day, perhaps as early as after the 2012 election, when they would return to the minority.

None of Thursday's series of votes would have eliminated all filibusters, which are used to stall action on bills or nominations and require 60 votes to override in the 100-member body. Instead, Democrats pushing for change sought to get rid of filibusters that specifically stop bills from being brought to the Senate floor, and to require senators imposing a filibuster to stay on the floor debating the issue. One proposal would have gradually reduced the 60-vote threshold to a simple majority of 51 as debate proceeded.

The votes were 84-12 against the proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa to gradually reduce the threshold and 51-44 to reject a proposal by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Harkin to end filibusters on motions to advance a bill to the floor, require those initiating filibusters to stay on the floor and to shorten debate time on nominations. A third resolution by Merkley that focused on requiring those filibustering to keep talking on the floor went down, 49-46. All the proposals to change Senate rules would have required two-thirds majorities for approval.

But recognizing the frustration of many senators over the delaying tactics and partisan battles that have paralyzed the Senate in recent years, Majority Leader Reid and Republican leader McConnell said they had agreed on non-binding steps to restore comity and cooperation in the Senate. Under the agreement, McConnell said minority Republicans would block fewer bills and nominations in exchange for a guarantee of more chances to amend legislation. [Ed- That's almost like the non-binding decision to sit next each other at the State of the Union.]

...Reid defended the central premise of the filibuster, saying debate without time limits was "in our DNA" in the Senate. But he also said, "We have to act because when abuses keep us from doing our work, they deter us from working together and they stop us from working for the American people."

He said he and McConnell would both avoid use of the so-called "constitutional option" where the majority could change filibuster and other Senate rules with a simple 51-vote majority in the 100-member chamber.

McConnell said he was optimistic that he and Reid could "convince our colleagues that we ought to get back to operating the Senate the way we did as recently as three or four years ago, when bills came up and they were open for amendment, and we voted on amendments, and at some point the bill would be completed."

Republicans have defended their use of the filibuster, saying it was in response to Democrats limiting the number of amendments they could offer to bills.

The leaders' deal focuses only on filibusters pertaining to "motions to proceed," or attempts to bring a bill or a nomination to the Senate floor. The compromise did not extend to filibusters that block efforts to cut off debate and bring a bill to a final vote.

I still favor abolishing the Senate or, since that is completely impossible, making it into a ceremonial body, something the British have been slowly doing for decades with their version, the House of Lords, especially with passage in 1911 of the Parliament Act, which affirmed some kind of democracy in the U.K.

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