Missed chance to fix the filibuster

The best chance to get the U.S. Senate to do its job is not to withhold pay (although withholding campaign contributions might have done the trick) but to reform the Senate rules so that filibusters aren't used so routinely to gum up the works. Majority Leader Harry Reid promised to take action, but the reforms revealed Thursday fall short of the strong medicine the chamber, and the nation, so desperately need.

Potentially the most far-reaching change Senator Reid, a Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, have agreed to support is a rule change that would make it much more difficult to filibuster a bill prior to its coming to the floor. The "motion to proceed" filibusters have had the effect of killing bills before they can even be debated. In return for the parliamentary concession, Democrats would be required to allow Republicans to offer at least two germane amendments before the so-called amendment "tree" is filled by the majority leader.

No doubt this revision will be modestly helpful, but it's far from a game-changer. The compromise will not, for instance, require senators to be present or hold the floor in order to block a bill. It's still likely that no proposal of substance or controversy will pass until it has 60 supporters — the supermajority needed to break a filibuster.

What a lost opportunity. At the beginning of a legislative session, the Senate gets a unique chance to change its rules with a simple majority vote. No one was asking Democrats to end the filibuster entirely, but just to make it what it once was — a rarely used device to ensure that the minority is not routinely steam-rolled on critical pieces of legislation.

Think "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Jimmy Stewart's marathon talk on the Senate floor captured the filibuster's purpose beautifully. Today's behavior wouldn't make much of a movie: There have been hundreds of cloture votes over the last half-decade. Opponents need only indicate they intend to filibuster to bottle up a bill.

The solution for all this filibuster abuse was clear enough. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and others offered plans months ago to return to the "talking filibuster" and require the minority to produce 41 votes to maintain a filibuster rather than putting the burden on the majority to come up with the 60 votes required to end one. The Reid-McConnell compromise, which must still be approved by the full Senate, will not achieve either goal.

And that means the Senate's dysfunction is likely to continue. As clever as House Republicans may have considered themselves with the "no budget, no pay" provision attached to their debt ceiling bill, it's difficult to imagine that such enhanced withholding is going to have much impact on the millionaires' club next door.

Instead, the measure just kicked the can another several months down the road. Think the Senate will pass a budget in time for the deadline after failing to approve one the last four years? One suspects the odds of the underdog Ravens winning the Super Bowl are far greater. Heck, the chances of the two teams deciding to skip the big game and go for a three-hour group hug instead are probably greater.

Meanwhile, the debt ceiling will return as an issue in May, which just maintains that much uncertainty in the credit market and the U.S. economy. We've said it before and we'll say it again: Refusing to pay one's proverbial credit card bill is no way to run a country and can only worsen the deficit and lower consumer confidence.

Filibuster reform, on the other hand, might have provided exactly the kick in the pants the Senate needed to clear its docket and get things done. That didn't require the majority to dominate (Republicans ought to be able to offer amendments and get an up or down vote on anything that reaches the floor), but right now the Senate can't accomplish anything.

How ironic that the one time the Democrats needed to pull rank and assert themselves, they sought bipartisan comity instead. The result is simply a cup of weak tea. As President Barack Obama recently observed, "we cannot mistake absolutism for principle." Filibuster abuse of recent years is just one more indication of how absolutism has interfered with the democratic process — and will likely continue to do so in the Senate.

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