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Stop the stalling; reform the filibuster

Now that Senate Republicans have blocked yet another of President Barack Obama’s nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems as poised as ever to take away their means of obstruction.

Reid told reporters Tuesday that he was once again considering rules reform – which is shorthand for doing away with filibusters on judicial and executive nominations by allowing a simple majority vote for approvals. A senior aide made that “nuclear option” sound even more likely in an interview with the Washington Post, saying that it’s hard to envision Reid not changing the rules.

He should. The filibuster, once a useful tool designed to give the minority party more influence in confirmations and legislation, is now a tactic overused by both parties to strip the president of the appointment powers the Constitution has given him.

Well over 100 of Obama’s executive and judicial nominees – including U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte, who was nominated to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency – have seen their nominations stalled because the Senate requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. That means just 40 senators can stop nominees from getting the consideration and yes-or-no vote they deserve.

This week, Republicans blocked the nomination of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Wilkins was the third blocked nominee in three weeks for that court, which hears many cases involving important regulatory issues.

Republicans say that the court, which has 11 seats, doesn’t need any more than its current eight judges because of a lighter workload. But in a September Senate hearing, Tenth Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich – the chair of the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Judicial Resources – testified that the D.C. Court of Appeals has had a “relatively steady” workload over the past decade. (Tymkovich, by the way, was a nominee of President George W. Bush.)

What’s really behind the blocking on the D.C. court? Republicans don’t want Obama to tilt its ideological balance with his three nominees. What’s not at issue is the qualifications of those nominees, who received the highest possible rating from the nonpartisan American Bar Association.

The same was true a decade ago, when Democrats concocted similarly flimsy workload issues to justify filibustering Bush’s qualified judicial nominees.

Reid came close earlier this year to finally changing the filibuster rules, but settled for a compromise in which Republicans accepted a few nominations and promised to behave. Also, Democrats have worried that changing the rules would bite them down the road if they became the Senate minority. But given the GOP’s increasingly combative posture in Congress, does anyone doubt that a Republican Senate majority would remove the nomination filibuster if the tables are turned in a few years?

Better to change it now. It’s a procedural privilege that has become a partisan weapon. It’s an antiquated Senate rule that’s inhibiting the efficient functioning of government. It’s the symbol – and a cause – of a broken Senate.

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