WASHINGTON – A determined effort to curb or kill Senate filibusters – secret holds and threats that let the minority party stop virtually anything it wants – failed on Jan. 25 when the Senate’s two party leaders announced a “compromise.”

The agreement between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent. – who launched 391 filibusters in the last Congress – lets the minority offer guaranteed amendments in return for curbing filibusters against lower-level presidential nominations.  And filibusters against even taking up a bill, on “motions to proceed,” are gone.

But senators can still bring business to a halt with just a filibuster threat, without having to actually talk a measure or nomination to death.  And it will still take 60 votes to halt filibusters and threats.

“This deal is a missed opportunity to move forward or even ensure debate on the critical issues facing our nation,” said Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, leader of a 51-group coalition, Fix the Senate Now, that mobilized members and citizens to curb or end the filibusters.

“In recent years, the Senate has failed to discuss, debate, or vote on measures that affect jobs, workers’ rights, health care, campaign financing, immigration, and the list goes on and on,” Cohen added.

Republicans used filibusters and threats to halt nominations to the National Labor Relations Board, kill equal pay for equal work legislation and spike the Dream Act legalizing young undocumented workers who enlist in college or join the military, among many things.

Even in the Democratic-run 111th Congress, in 2009-10, the filibuster threat and a multimillion-dollar business campaign sidelined the Employee Free Choice Act, to help level the playing field between bosses and workers in organizing and bargaining.   Filibusters and threats could now sidetrack much of what labor wants from this Congress as well, Cohen said.

Fix the Senate Now members sent 2.5 million e-mails to lawmakers, delivered petitions with a million names and added 100,000 phone calls.  The U.S. Capitol switchboard was jammed.  Reid apparently yielded to McConnell, instead of backing – and pushing through – a tougher reform package Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., offered.

McConnell had told Reid that if the tougher package passed, the GOP would tie up the Senate when substantive issues – such as the federal budget – came up for votes.

The leaders’ “incremental improvements…do not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change, transparency and accountability,” the fixthesenate coalition said.

“For members of our union, and progressives throughout the nation, the failure to enact substantial reform of the rules almost guarantees that for two more years, there will not be effective debate, discussion or voting on even the critical issues the Obama administration has outlined,” Cohen added.

He then pledged CWA would continue its Democracy Initiative, which included filibuster reform.  But he admitted that no reform makes achieving its goals – such as curbing corporate power in politics – harder.

“The toxic combination of Senate rules, money and politics, obstacles to voting rights, and no path to citizenship for millions of immigrants all add up to continued control by the 1%, and a declining standard of living for the rest of us,” he said.  “Today, we are more committed than ever to building a movement for real change.”

The coalition said the McConnell-Reid agreement “avoids measures that would actually raise the costs of Senate obstruction.  Neither the talking filibuster provision, nor the shifting of the burden to the minority to supply 41 votes to keep a filibuster going” were included.

Younger Democrats, led by Merkley, pushed for the wide-ranging reforms, including mandating an actual “talking filibuster.”  Older ones, except Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, resisted.  They remembered when they had to use filibusters to block GOP schemes during the Bush government.  Harkin’s long-held plan to have declining numbers of votes needed to cut off filibusters – from 60 to 57 to 54 to 51 – lost on a voice vote.


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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).