A partisan war is brewing that could bring the government to a screeching halt as early as January — and no, it’s not over the fiscal cliff.
It’s all about the filibuster.
Democrats are threatening to change filibuster rules, in what will surely prompt a furious GOP revolt that could make those rare moments of bipartisan consensus even harder to come by during the next Congress.
Here’s what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering: banning filibusters used to prevent debate from even starting and House-Senate conference committees from ever meeting. He also may make filibusters become actual filibusters — to force senators to carry out the nonstop, talkathon sessions.
Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules.
“I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.”
“It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”
The push will happen at the start of the new Congress, when Reid will unveil a rules package certain to have some changes to the filibuster. The exact contents of that package have yet to be finalized, as is the decision on whether to invoke the so-called nuclear option — 51 votes — to push it through. But Democratic senators are urging Reid to take steps ranging from the most draconian one of virtually eliminating the filibuster to more piecemeal changes designed to discourage the use of the stalling tactic.
What Reid appears most likely to do is push for an end to the filibuster on so-called motions to proceed, or the beginning of a debate on bills or nominations. If Reid goes this route, senators could still filibuster virtually any other aspect of Senate business, including any movement to end debate and call for a final vote on a bill.
And Reid is strongly considering pushing for other filibuster changes, too — most notably requiring senators to actually go to the floor and carry out an endless talking session, rather than simply threaten them as they do now. Reminiscent of the 1939 movie classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the idea has picked up steam in liberal circles — and its intent is to discourage senators from filibustering, though it would fundamentally change the very nature of the modern Senate.
“We cannot allow the Senate to be dysfunctional by the use of filibusters,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Reid’s No. 2. “We’ve had over 300 filibusters in the last six years — it’s unprecedented. What we’re talking about is very basic — you want to start a filibuster, you want to stop the business of the Senate, by goodness’ sake, park your fanny on the floor of the Senate and speak. If you want to go to dinner and go home over the weekend, be prepared, the Senate is moving forward.”
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