WASHINGTON (PAI) - The newly elected, slightly more Democratic U.S. Senate must tackle comprehensive filibuster reform or it will grind to a dead halt again, a panel that discussed the impact of the election on the judiciary concludes.
And the group, speaking at the American Constitution Society, a group of progressive lawyers, says that includes much more than just lowering the number of votes, now 60, needed to shut off filibuster threats and get anything done.
It also means another change in the Senate's rules to eliminate the allied threat that once a filibuster has been stopped, there still can be 30 hours of "debate" on a bill or a presidential nomination - and that there doesn't have to be a real debate, just one senator speaking to an empty chamber.
Filibuster reform is important for unions and their allies. Used and abused by right wing Republicans against the Obama administration, filibusters blocked judicial nominees and nominees to the National Labor Relations Board-paralyzing the agency
And just the threat of a filibuster, aided by a massive multi-million-dollar big business campaign against it, prevented the Senate from even considering labor's top legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act. That law was designed to help level the playing field between workers and bosses in union organizing and elections.
All that has led the Communications Workers to make filibuster reform a top cause and they're trying to bring the rest of the union movement along. The union reiterated that goal in post-election comments.
"The 2012 election makes the reform even more paramount," it said. "Seven Democratic senators-elect - Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Tim Kaine (Va.), Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) - have all already pledged to Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to support rules reform. And Maine's Independent candidate, former Gov. Angus King won on a platform included filibuster reform as a major campaign issue.
"The American people want their elected officials to debate and address the major issues of our time and to move past obstruction for obstruction's sake," added CWA Legislative Director Shane Larson.
"Momentum is squarely on the side of substantial reforms, as seen in Majority
Leader Harry Reid's remarks and the continued leadership of rules reform champions like Sens. Tom Harkin, Merkley, and Mark Udall. Now with newly elected senators pledging to overhaul the chamber's filibuster rules, it's time to act."
The ACS panel said the window is narrow - "several weeks"-for changing the rules to throttle the filibusters. The old Senate's rules, including its 60-votes-for-cloture requirement, do not bind the new Senate.
The panelists contend the new Senate can adopt new rules, right at the beginning of the 113th Congress, by a simple 51-senator majority. The election left the new Senate with 53 Democrats, a gain of two, plus two independents. One, Bernie Sanders, caucuses with the Democrats. The other, King, is expected to also do so.
But stopping the filibuster will take more than just reducing the number of senators needed to end such talkathons, said one panelist, Ian Millhiser of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
"Want to do something? Bring up filibuster reform in lobbying lawmakers, he challenged the capacity crowd at the ACS event. "With 51 votes, the Senate can do whatever it wants to do" at the start of the New Year, he said.
That includes not only reducing the number of senators needed for cloture, as Harkin proposes, from 60 to 57 to 64 to 51, vote by vote. It also includes eliminating the 30 hours of debate after the filibuster is halted. And it should also include a requirement Merkley proposes: If senators want to filibuster, at least 20 of them must physically be there to do so. "If one steps out to go to the bathroom, you can call for a vote" on a bill or nomination, Millhiser said.
"We've got to do something about those 60 votes and 30 hours," he said.