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Senate should go back to future on filibuster reform

From an editorial published Tuesday in the San Jose Mercury News:

The Senate needs to go back to the future on filibuster reform. Senators should have to stand their ground and raise their voices on the Senate floor, around the clock if necessary, a la Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” to keep legislation from coming to a vote.

Back in the day, a minority senator had to have strong personal convictions against legislation to undertake the onerous, sleep-depriving filibuster, talking and talking and talking to block action. Today, a senator, or a group of senators, can merely threaten a filibuster, and suddenly the legislation requires a 60-vote supermajority to move forward to a vote. It’s outrageous. Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid wants to change the rules, and President Obama should be helping to persuade the handful of Democratic senators who are on the fence.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is one of them. She told the publication The Hill that she thinks it would be a mistake to use the Senate’s power to change the filibuster rules, but she said, “I’ll listen to arguments.”

Senate Republicans’ record should be argument enough.

Not one filibuster was recorded in the Senate until 1841. The average in the decade of the Reagan and Carter years was about 20 per year. Senate Republicans used the filibuster a record 112 times in 2012 and have used it 360 times since 2007.

They have stopped legislation that has widespread public support. GOP senators blocked a major military spending bill, a badly needed veterans’ jobs bill and the Dream Act. They stifled the Disclose Act, which would require greater transparency in campaign advertising. In a particularly craven abuse of the system, they have halted the nominations of nearly two dozen judicial appointments, causing backlogs in courts that delay justice for people and businesses across the country.

Some Democrats fear that Republicans will win control of the body in 2014, when 20 Senate Democrats will have to defend their seats, and they’ll want the power minority Republicans have now. But then Republicans could change the rules.

In “Mr. Smith,” an idealistic Jimmy Stewart used the filibuster in an admirable way. But it has an ugly history, often as a last-ditch attempt to stop overdue change. In 1957, Sen. Strom Thurmond spoke for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act, which he labeled unconstitutional and “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Senate is supposed to debate the great issues of the day, not stop them from being debated. Senators should change the rules and get back to work.

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