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It’s Time to Regulate the Number of Aborted Votes in the Senate

With the disaster in the Senate on Thursday, when Republicans proved yet again that they will not easily give up their discriminatory ways, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was aborted when it failed to pass a vote on cloture. The New York Times howled on Friday that The Senate Stands for Injustice, but this event really was just one more in a long string of aborted votes in the Senate that are bringing it increasingly closer to gridlock. Both parties have been guilty of this obstructionism over the years, but at least in terms of failed cloture motions, the past four years, with Democrats in the majority and Republicans aborting as many votes as they can, have seen these Senate abortions sail to an all-time high. It should be possible to put the Senate back to work actually debating and then having simple majority votes on passage of bills rather than aborting any votes on them.   Let’s also eliminate the back alley vote abortions embodied in “holds” on legislation and limit total blockage attempts to no more than 10 for each caucus in a two year session.

Here is the Senate historian on how and when the current cloture rule came into being:

In 1841, when the Democratic minority hoped to block a bank bill promoted by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, he threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close debate. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate’s right to unlimited debate.

Three quarters of a century later, in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as “cloture.” The new Senate rule was first put to the test in 1919, when the Senate invoked cloture to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles.

Later, this rule was amended so that the current three-fifths, or sixty votes, is needed to invoke cloture.

The history of cloture motions and their passage is recorded here. I have converted the data on the Senate page into the graph above, where “Aborted Votes” are obtained by subtracting the number of times cloture was invoked from the number of cloture motions filed during a particular two year session in the Senate. [cont’d.]

However, if we are to extend the vote abortion analogy even further, then the aborted votes in the graph represent votes aborted in clean, professionally run clinics.  Sadly, many other votes in the Senate suffer back alley abortions (cloakroom abortions, in this case?), when legislation is abandoned or a Presidential nomination is never brought up for a vote because one or more Senators places a hold or even just threatens to do so.  This process also has become extremely common practice, with one horrible result being the huge number of judicial positions that sit unfilled.

Rather than jumping all the way to the “nuclear option” of removing the filibuster entirely, I think it would make sense to make aborted votes open and extremely rare.  I would love to see the Senate agree to end the practice of secret “holds” on legislation or nominations and put them into the same category with cloture.  To make these vote abortions extremely rare, let’s limit each caucus to no more than ten attempts to block a bill or nomination, subject to being overridden by a sixty vote invocation of cloture.  In addition, let’s limit each individual Senator to only one such attempt per session.  That would retain a practice with historical precedent but rescue it from being the over-used and cheap parliamentary tactic that it has become in the last forty years.  The Senate was able to function for the first fifty years after Rule 22 was adopted without exceeding this number of cloture motions.

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Jim White

Jim White

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