Freshman Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) took to the Senate floor yesterday with a resolution that would allow the incoming Senate in January 2011 to determine its rules by majority vote, which could lead to the end of the filibuster.

Currently, under Senate rules, a 2/3 vote would be needed to change any measure be which the body governs itself, which continue from one Congress to the next. Udall’s measure would reduce that rule-changing vote, under Rule XXII, to a simple majority, meaning that a majority would be able to get rid of the filibuster in the future. Just that threat may reduce the historic obstructionism we’ve seen from Republicans. Of course, such a vote on Udall’s proposal would be subject to cloture, and thus a filibuster on rules that could end the filibuster.

Here are some of Udall’s remarks from the floor of the Senate yesterday:

“This is a bipartisan issue. I express my opinions today as a member of the Majority, but they will not change if I become a member of the minority party. We are all too aware of the power of Rule 22, the filibuster rule adopted in 1975. Yet, except for the distinguished Senators Byrd, Inouye and Leahy, none of us, Republicans or Democrats alike, have ever voted to adopt this rule. Opponents of rules reform argue that the Senate is a continuing body, and therefore the rules must remain in effect from one Congress to the next. I disagree with this assertion. Even if the Senate is deemed to have continued because two-thirds of its members remain in office, there is no reason that the rules must remain in effect. Many things change with a new Congress. It’s given a new number. All of the pending bills and nominations from the previous Congress are dead, and each party may choose its leadership. If the party in the Majority changes, the new Senate becomes substantially different from the last. Senators of both parties have argued that the rules may change with a new Congress.”
 “It is time for reform. There are many great traditions in this body that should be kept and respected, but stubbornly clinging to infective and unproductive procedures should not be one of them. There is another way. The resolution I’m introducing today is simple. It would enable the 112th Congress to carry out its responsibility to determine the rules of its proceedings in accordance with the Constitution. This is not to say that between now and the beginning of the 112th Congress we cannot use our political will to find a way to avoid the gridlock of 2009. It is to say that at the beginning of the 112th Congress, the Senate can exercise its constitutional right to adopt its rules of procedure by a simple majority vote.”

Udall is not the only Senator pushing for a change in the way the Senate conducts business. Tom Harkin will reintroduce his bill that would lower the threshold for the filibuster over a series of legislative days, starting at 60, and ultimately moving to 51. Gov. Ed Rendell, a former DNC Chair, is pushing for making the minority actually filibuster, but given rule changes since the 1970s, the mechanics of that would not really shine the light on Republican obstructionism in any real way. And reporter Mike Stark caught wind of discussions inside the Democratic caucus to change the filibuster rule. Perhaps Udall’s product came out of those talks.

I spoke with Senator Bob Casey (D, PA) earlier today. He told me that the Democratic caucus was “working through” how to get around the 60-vote threshold for moving legislation. He said that it was the “subject of a lot of discussion at the end of the year” and “will be in the future”. He went on to say that there may be alternatives to rounding up the required 67 votes to change the rules and the caucus is exploring that. One possible justification for getting creative? According to the Senator, “Sometimes the other party approaches it a different way.”

Without some reform of the Senate, we will continue to have, in the words of Ron Brownstein, “a parliamentary system without majority rule.” And such a system is destined to lead to paralysis and chaos.

David Dayen

David Dayen