Newer senators fed up with old rules that block progress

Just when the Senate was poised to change an arcane rule that let even a single senator paralyze the entire chamber, a single senator stood up and invoked another arcane rule to derail the whole thing.

It happened late Thursday and appeared to represent just the kind of episode that has helped stir public frustration over Washington’s seemingly dysfunctional ways.

The issue was a relatively modest proposal to require Senators to disclose their identities within two days if they put a “hold” on a bill or a presidential nomination.


But beneath the surface, the incident may reflect a growing possibility that the Capitol could actually be in the process of changing, albeit slowly.

Newer senators complain that rules originally created to protect the rights of the minority have turned into impassable obstacles to dealing with big issues.

The junior members are getting unlikely support from their seniors, who are loath to be seen as defending the status quo at a time when some voters seem ready to punish incumbents regardless of party.

Against that background, the Democratic leadership has promised to reexamine some of the old rules — including that most vaunted of time-encrusted mechanisms for delay, the filibuster.

The sheer number of new Democratic senators — 21, representing nearly half of the party’s caucus — and the unwillingness of others to stand in their way provides a momentum unfelt since the Watergate babies were elected in 1974.

“Frustration is building and the Senate is really taking a beating in the public on this,” said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “That’s why the newer members are getting more traction. They just feel the pressure to deliver.”

First -term Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said: “We get it.”

The disclosure issue on holding up bills seemed a small point of potential change. The current rules require senators to out themselves within six days, but only if the matter is called up for debate.

But as newer senators have repeatedly demonstrated by taking to the floor en masse to call for votes on President Obama’s nominees for government posts — only to have them anonymously blocked — senators simply ignore the disclosure rules and leaders shelve the issue and move on.

The Democratic leadership had agreed to let the proposed change, pushed by McCaskill and others, come to a vote as an amendment to the financial regulation bill now before the Senate.

But Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) took advantage of Senate rules that prevent the leadership from barring unrelated amendments. DeMint proposed an amendment to the amendment to require the administration to finish building the 700-mile, double-layer fence along the Mexico border that is a major source of contention in the national debate over illegal immigration.

Rather than force their senators to take what for some would be an uncomfortable vote on the fence, they convinced Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to shelve his disclosure amendment for another day.

“One senator — just one — without notice, kept us from bringing that new accountability and openness to the Senate,” Wyden said in a fiery floor speech after the ordeal. “We got kneecapped.”

DeMint insists he supports the effort to end “secret holds” but believes, his spokesman said, “the American people are much more concerned with border security than arcane Senate procedure.”

Changing long-held practices will come slowly in the stately Senate, if at all.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will consider proposals to alter the filibuster — next year, at the start of new Congress, when new rules are more easily adopted. But that may be longer than even many Democrats can support.

“The force of inertia in the Senate is colossal,” said Ross Baker, a professor at Rutgers University.

Meanwhile, over on the House side, where rules give leaders more flexibility, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) moved quickly this week to respond to criticism of procedures that have enabled members to travel extravagantly and in other ways indulge themselves at public expense.

Pelosi put in place new rules overseeing lawmakers’ domestic and foreign travel, limiting the enhanced per diems that tack an extra $50 a day onto expense accounts. She also put an end to flying in business class, which was happening on a regular basis.

The president also did his part to stem voters’ discontent with Washington on Friday by signing into law a bill eliminating Congress’ automatic cost-of-living raise this year.