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Some Democrats Try To Rewrite Rules On Filibusters

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Swearing in 13 newly elected members likely won’t be the only order of business as a new session of the Senate gets under way Wednesday.

Some Democrats also want to use opening day to change the rules for two Senate practices they say have gotten out of hand: filibusters, which block bills from coming to a vote, and secret holds, which are anonymous threats to carry out a filibuster.

It’s mostly the newer Democratic senators who are gunning to place greater restrictions on the filibuster and secret holds; they are being led by New Mexico freshman Tom Udall, who nearly four months ago announced his strategy to bring about those changes.

“At the beginning of the next Congress, I will move for the Senate to end debate and adopt its rules by a simple majority,” he said.

The Senate requires approval by a two-thirds majority of 67 senators to change its rules. But as Udall points out, the Constitution simply says “each House may determine the rules of its proceedings” and says nothing about a supermajority being required to do so. Since the Senate traditionally approves its standing rules the first day it’s in session, Udall says doing so by a simple majority of 51 senators -- as well as amending those rules -- would be the constitutional option.

“The constitutional option is our chance to fix the rules that are being abused, rules that have encouraged obstruction like none ever seen before in this chamber,” he said.

Democrats held a record-setting 89 votes in the last Congress to try to end GOP filibusters. They also saw dozens of President Obama’s nominees fail to get Senate confirmation votes because of anonymous holds placed by Republicans.

‘Modifying Around The Edges’

Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, calls the attempt to change the rules a nullification of the November election, in which Republicans picked up half a dozen more seats in the Senate.

“Voters who turned out in November are going to be pretty disappointed when they learn the first thing that some Democrats want to do is to cut off the right of people they elected in November to make their voices heard on the floor of the United States Senate,” he said Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

But Udall told NPR’s All Things Considered this week that his purpose is not to do away with the filibuster.

“We aren’t changing the actual filibuster. We’re modifying around the edges,” he said. “We’re making more transparency. We’re trying to do this in a bipartisan way. We’re trying to protect minority rights.”

Udall plans to offer a resolution making several changes: It would end the use of filibusters to keep bills from even coming to the floor; it would end secret holds; it would require those staging a filibuster to stay on the Senate floor continuously and debate; and it would guarantee the minority the right to offer a certain number of amendments on any bill under consideration.

‘The Gift Of The Minority’

But Alexander says Democrats are being short-sighted if they think curtailing the use of the filibuster is in their best interest.

“Those who want to create a freight train running through the Senate today, as it does in the House, might think about whether they will want that freight train running through the Senate in two years, when the freight train might be the Tea Party Express,” he said.

All the Senate Democrats who are returning Wednesday signed a letter last month endorsing a revision of the filibuster rules -- but they did not spell out just what should be done.

Rutgers University congressional expert Ross Baker says he does not foresee any major changes.

“After all is said and done, I think the filibuster will be left pretty much as it is,” he said. “I just think there are too many people ... too many Democrats, particularly, concerned about being in the minority and understanding, of course, that preeminently the filibuster is the gift of the minority in the Senate.”

What’s most likely to happen is that Wednesday’s Senate session will be kept open for several weeks. That would give Democrats time to try to strike a deal on filibuster rules with Republicans before exercising the constitutional option. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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