Lost opportunity to revise filibuster rule

State Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia was attacking a new state law when he wrote, “The new law makes a second dangerous change. It requires a two-thirds vote by the Review and Advisory Committee to change the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code. This will create gridlock and prevent adoption of commonsense public-safety changes.”

Stack could just as well have been describing the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule. Ironically, his words were carried in a Philadelphia Inquirer letter two days after the Republicans invoked the filibuster over oil subsidies – following a GOP pledge four months ago to limit its use.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, reached an accord last Jan. 27, 2011, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to retain the filibuster power that Republicans employed to block any kind of government-run health-care system and persist with tax cuts for the wealthy.

Reid and Mitchell’s pact allows Republican senators to submit nearly all the amendments they want to a given measure, and Republicans will limit their use of the filibuster.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, quoted in The Oregonian at the time, said, “There is nothing that touches the impact of the filibuster on amendments and nothing that touches the impact on bills, so we still may see the same obstruction we’ve seen before.”

Merkley’s fears were realized on Tuesday, May 17, when Democrats proposed ending tax breaks for five major oil companies accused of unfairly padding industry profits, according to The New York Times. The measure would have passed if a majority vote was sufficient, but the 52-48 vote fell short of the 60 votes required to end debate.

In a fundraising e-mail distributed for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee the next day, Reid whined: “It’s a no-brainer: Big Oil doesn’t need taxpayer subsidies. After all, the five largest oil companies raked in profits of $32 billion in the first quarter of 2011 – while Americans are paying four bucks a gallon at the pump. And yet, they continue to collect billions in tax dollar handouts at a time when we need to cut spending.

“It’s unfair, and MUST stop. But last night, Republicans derailed a Democratic bill that would end this double-fisted cash grab and save $21 billion.”

Another “no-brainer”: Big Senate doesn’t need a filibuster.  Four months ago, Reid “derailed a Democratic bill that would end this double-fisted” power grab and save us all lots of aggravation.

Merkley was joined in January by Tom Harkin of Iowa and Tom Udall of New Mexico in a bid to “to end this double-fisted” filibuster power.

Any senator can filibuster, or threaten to filibuster, proposed legislation without taking to the floor to make their case, as James Stewart did in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The Senate needs 60 votes to end a filibuster, not a plain majority of 51 votes. The process is called cloture.

The trio pressed for a resolution to require that all senators who invoke the filibuster must address the legislation on the floor.

Most Democrats voted for the measure, but it could neither get past the 67-vote barrier nor even a majority vote.

Reid has worked hard for various causes to benefit the public, but how does it help anyone to hand the Republicans a decisive weapon like the filibuster?

Reid in the past defended the filibuster when Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democratic senators feared losing this device if they return to the minority. Democrats also might have feared that they would be demonized if they curbed or ended the filibuster.

Democrats might have sustained some political damage in the short term, but they would have ensured themselves a level playing field if they took decisive action against the filibuster.

 

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