WASHINGTON – A campaign backed by organized labor, to curb the power of Senate minorities to halt virtually every piece of legislation by filibustering, went down in flames in the tradition-bound chamber on Jan. 27.

After eight hours of debate on rules changes, reform proposals backed by unions failed not only to get the 67 votes Senate leaders decided they needed, but didn’t even get a majority of lawmakers.

Instead, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., promised to voluntarily limit filibusters on motions to debate bills and on presidential nominations.

Some Democrats voted to keep the talkathons going, remembering when they were in the minority – or fearing they would be again. In 2012, Dems must defend 21 Senate seats, compared to 10 for the GOP. Democrats now lead 51-47, plus two Democratic-leaning independents, who are also up in 2012.
The defeats on the filibuster votes mean a 41-person minority in the 100-member Senate can still bring business to a screeching halt, or even prevent measures a majority clearly wants – such as the Employee Free Choice Act – from being debated at all.

One proposal that went down in flames was by Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would still permit limited filibusters, but with smaller majorities needed to shut them off each time a vote was called. He lost, 84-12.

Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., changed vote requirements and said a senator who wants to filibuster must actually stand and talk against it until 60 votes shut down debate. Right now, just the threat of 41 votes for the “filibuster” is enough to keep it going – even when no one is talking. Their plan lost 51-46.

The one bright spot, however, is that the Senate agreed to eliminate the process by which an individual Senator can put a secret hold on nominees put forward by the president.

Curbing the filibusters has been a particular cause of CWA President Larry Cohen, chair of the AFL-CIO Legislative Committee. Cohen has seen filibusters and filibuster threats, block everything from the EFCA to extensions of unemployment benefits.

Not only that, but minority-bloc senators use the filibuster threat to strong-arm majorities into agreeing to minority demands. That’s how McConnell combined the Bush tax cuts for the rich with the extension of unemployment benefits late last year.

“We commend Senators Harkin, Merkley and Udall for their efforts, and we and the 60 other progressive groups who worked on these changes will continue our efforts to get real reform,” said CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.