WASHINGTON: The tradition-laden Senate voted Thursday to modestly curb filibusters, using a bipartisan consensus rare in today’s hyper-partisan climate to make it a bit harder but not impossible for outnumbered senators to sink bills and nominations.
The rule changes would reduce yet not eliminate the number of times opponents — usually minority-party Republicans these days — can use filibusters, procedural tactics which can derail legislation and which can be stopped only by the votes of 60 of the 100 senators.
In return, the majority party — Democrats today — would have to allow two minority amendments on bills, a response to Republican complaints that Democrats often prevent them from offering any amendments at all. The new procedures also would limit the time spent debating some bills and nominations, allowing some to be completed in hours that could otherwise take a day or more.
The changes were broken into two pieces and approved by votes of 78-16 and 86-9. In both roll calls, Republican opponents were joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who usually sides with Democrats. Many of the GOP “no” votes came from tea party-backed senators like Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The two votes and a brief debate took less than an hour, impressively quick for the Senate. They came after a more typical day that featured a sprinkling of senators’ speeches and long periods when the Senate chamber idled with no one talking, while private negotiations off the floor nailed down final details.
President Barack Obama said the Senate action would help his agenda in Congress.
The pact leaves the Senate’s minority party with far more power than it has in the House, where rules let a united majority party easily muscle through its priorities. It also falls short of changes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had been threatening to ram through using the 55 votes Democrats have, a technique nicknamed the “nuclear option” because it is considered likely to produce harsh GOP retaliation that could grind work to a virtual halt.
The rules also don’t go nearly as far as restrictions championed by a group of newer Democratic senators, such as requiring filibustering senators to physically debate on the Senate floor, as portrayed by the actor Jimmy Stewart in the classic 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Such filibusters have been rare for decades.