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Talk of Senate Rules Reform Hangs Over Netroots Nation

Amid the frustration of a sidelined policy agenda despite large majorities in both houses of Congress, attendees and policymakers at Netroots Nation turned to procedural reform as a way to break the deadlock and bring some accountability back to the legislative branch.

The filibuster has the potential to be a real litmus test in the midterm election. More recent members of the Senate, like Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall, have been the most vocal about changing the chamber’s rules, and the new candidates looking for attention at Netroots Nation have also highlighted their support of reform. Jack Conway, the Attorney General of Kentucky, who is running against Rand Paul in the Bluegrass State, told FDL News that he strongly supports filibuster reform. “When I go around the state, some people tell me that the filibuster is in the Constitution, but it’s not, and it’s changed over the years. There’s nothing magical about 60 votes. It could be 55, it could be 51, the filibuster could be something the minority could only use five times a session. I would be supportive of any of that.” Conway highlighted his opponent’s willingness to obstruct and filibuster everything, being someone attempting to become a lawmaker who doesn’t believe in lawmaking. “Can you imagine adding Rand Paul to the Party of No? That’s why other Senators and people in the party keep saying to me, you’ve gotta win this race.”

Other Senate candidates, like Elaine Marshall and Alexi Giannoulias, have announced their support of filibuster reform, with more expected.

As much as the filibuster allows a minority to painlessly block initiatives, it allows them to delay and extend the calendar, and essentially run out the clock on the Senate. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said in a panel on judicial confirmations that the average non-controversial judicial nominee, one who gets a voice vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, still takes 2-4 months to get a final vote. “We’ve done a terrible job” on moving the nominees, Cardin acknowledged, and he explicitly tied it to an effort by Republicans to run out the clock. Cardin’s Maryland colleague, Barbara Mikulski, assailed the filibuster on the Senate floor this week, and called for reform.

Tom Udall expects to force a vote in January allowing the Senate to change its rules for the next Congress, and would need 51 votes to get it done. About the only pushback from any Democrats that you hear as a point against Udall’s effort is that you would run the risk of allowing Republicans to move their agenda if they regain the majority. I asked Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) what he thought of that argument, and he didn’t mince words. “I think it’s bullshit,” Garamendi said. “We’re here now. Tomorrow we could die. We have to legislate. What are we waiting for?” Among other changes, Garamendi supported making the minority filibuster by actually forcing them to the floor and to hold it. Many have disagreed whether or not the Democrats could actually do this procedurally, but it’s worth noting that earlier this year, when Democrats threatened to make Republicans stay all night to sustain a filibuster on unemployment insurance extension, the Republicans did give up within a few hours. “Some say we cannot come on so strong,” Garamendi said. “But I’ve always believed that if you are bold and strong and vote with your convictions, you can explain it to your constituents, even if they’re not inclined to agree with you.”

Garamendi, who worked in the executive branch during the Clinton Administration and speaks with his Senate colleagues frequently, acknowledged that he didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem of process before he got to Washington. He compared it to the intractable situation in Sacramento, where he was Lt. Governor until winning a House seat.

While obscure to rank-and-file, low-information voters, procedural reform has become a litmus test for the progressive base, and it’s forcing the politicians to react in interesting ways. “If nothing else, you’d think that the lawmakers would want to do something when they go to Washington,” said David Waldman, a writer for Daily Kos who specializes in procedural issues and is working on reform with some advocacy groups. “The argument that the Republicans would push their agenda through if they get the majority is specious. They’d love to do that anyway, and if they got the majority, they’d doubtlessly try to get it done. So we might as well make some laws in the meantime.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen