Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shocked and infuriated many of his fellow Democrats on Thursday when he backed away from his pledge to put an end to the curse of the filibuster.
Minority Republicans have been flagrantly using the old filibuster ploy to block even the most mundane bills unless they can win votes from at least 60 of 100 senators. This has effectively stunted the Democrats’ 53-seat majority and stifled initiatives from the Obama White House.
In times past, the filibuster was a rarely invoked parliamentary rule that allowed a single senator to halt legislative business if he was willing to stay on the Senate floor and talk for hour after hour, risking a raw throat, sleep deprivation and a distended bladder. Now, though, it has morphed into a convenient emergency brake that can be pulled remotely by any senator without having to leave the comfort of his or her office. Critics say abuse of the filibuster rule is a major source of the gridlock in Washington that everyone complains about because it unfairly gives the minority a veto over anything the majority wants to do.
Last year, Reid thought he had a deal with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to limit use of filibusters. When he got burned on the deal, Reid apologized to freshman senators in his caucus who had been urging him to rewrite Senate rules and pare back the filibuster to its original form. He said at the time, and again after the election, that he was going to force a change at the start of the new Congress.
Well, that moment came and Reid opted for a deal with McConnell that tweaked filibuster guidelines but left the rules largely unchanged. It will be slightly easier for the president’s nominees for judgeships and positions in his administration to get approved and it will speed up a few procedural steps, but the necessity of having a supermajority to get a bill passed remains.
Liberals are furious. They feel Reid has betrayed them and the president by throwing away an opportunity to end Republican obstructionism. Hopping mad as they are now, though, a day may come when they'll give thanks that he made a deal with the GOP devil.
In the 2014 congressional elections, Republicans will be defending 13 Senate seats. Only one is in a state that is not solidly in the Republican column, Susan Collins’ seat in Maine. Democrats will be trying to hang on to 20 seats. Several of those are in swing states and, because Democrats have yet to figure out how to drag their voters to the polls in non-presidential election years, they could easily see their 53-seat majority slip away.
Democrats may be frustrated for the next two years, but, in the two years that follow, when Republicans could easily be in charge of both the House and the Senate, the Ds may find the filibuster is a very useful weapon. Maybe Harry Reid was just planning ahead.