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Handful of Senate Democrats Oppose Filibuster Reform

Seemingly a counterpoint to all the momentum in recent days for Senate rules reform, a group of conservative and old-guard Democrats announced their opposition to changing the rules requiring a 60-vote threshold to clear a filibuster. Ten Democrats are cited in the article (though not all of them are named) as either opposed to or resistant to lowering the 60-vote threshold. Here are all of the names cited:

A 10th Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said he would support changing the rule on filibusters of motions to begin debate on legislation, but not necessarily the 60-vote threshold needed to bring up a final vote on bills […]

“It won’t happen,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said she would “probably not” support an effort to lower the number of votes needed to cut off filibusters from 60 to 55 or lower.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) echoed Feinstein: “I think we should retain the same policies that we have instead of lowering it.

“I think it has been working,” he said.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he recognizes his colleagues are frustrated over the failure to pass measures such as the Disclose Act, campaign legislation that fell three votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster Tuesday.

“I think as torturous as this place can be, the cloture rule and the filibuster is important to protect the rights of the minority,” he said. “My inclination is no.”

Sen. Jon Tester, a freshman Democrat from Montana, disagrees with some of his classmates from more liberal states.

“I think the bigger problem is getting people to work together,” he said. “It’s been 60 for a long, long time. I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules.”

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is up for reelection in 2012, also said he would like the votes needed for cloture to remain the same.

“I’m not one who think it needs to be changed,” he said […]

Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said they are wary of filibuster reform.

“As frustrating as it has been, I just think we have to be careful about it,” Landrieu said when asked about a rules change to respond to GOP obstruction.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he needed to think about it. Earlier this year, he warned that a change would need to be reviewed carefully.

So you have Levin wanting to end filibusters for the motion to proceed but not to end debate. You have Feinstein, Akaka, Nelson and Tester basically opposed. Pryor’s inclination is no. And Landrieu, Rockefeller, Feingold and Baucus are wary.

You’ll notice that, of that entire group, only Feingold is up for re-election this year. And he’s not quoted in the article (though this would be a somewhat consistent position for him). Most of those Senators are up for re-election in 2012, and as surely as it has become an issue this year, rules reform will become an issue in those 2012 debates, particularly if there are any primaries (Feinstein and Akaka particularly).

Senate rules reform has now become a litmus test for Democratic base votes. If you want to move forward on basically any issue under the sun, you need to support rules reform, given the unanimous obstructionist unanimity in the Republican caucus. There’s a small business bill which both sides pay tons of lip service to that has been stuck on the Senate floor for a month. The delays, as much as anything else, restrict the effectiveness of the chamber. And they lead to a body that cannot function. So that’s what these Democrats support. And their base voters know it, and will in all likelihood make that an issue in their elections.

If this does become such a polarizing issue in primaries and Senate elections, within 4-6 years there will be a clear majority for the rules change as long as there’s a majority of Democrats in Congress. Actually either way, since Republicans would relish the opportunity as well. The filibuster has a short shelf life.

UPDATE: This story from Sam Stein has some important context. Tom Udall wants to change the Senate rules and further the precedent for changing those rules at the beginning of the next Congress. He’s never said “end the filibuster” actually, only “change the rules.” Some of the early rules may be procedural – ending the post-cloture 30 hours, or the ripening of cloture motions, or other steps to reduce the delays in the system – but they move inexorably toward a majority-vote body. And as I said, that will end within 6 years, IMO.

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David Dayen

David Dayen