Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” has been evoked quite a bit lately in the nation’s capital, as the idea of reforming the Senate filibuster advanced beneath the fiscal-cliff headlines.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering a bid to bring back the talking filibuster, such as Mr. Smith delivers in the 1939 film on behalf of justice and righteousness. The most famous real-life filibuster was a bit less noble. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes in protest of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (When he was done, Georgia Democrat Richard Russell picked up where Byrd left off.)
In a sense, Reid wishes to replicate that kind of filibuster. The drawn-out debate soaked up news coverage, and eventually the bill’s supporters picked up enough votes to pass it.
Since then the number of votes needed to end a filibuster came down from 67 to 60, but the Senate also found a way to move onto other business while a filibuster is going on. So one does not have to load up on caffeine to launch a proper filibuster, and the action itself does not stop the Senate in its tracks.
The Mr. Smith movement is not a craving for more fantastic Senate floor oratory, but to make foes using a filibuster look ridiculous and unreasonable, while breaking down their will over time. If the Senate must stop and watch while the minority party wages a war against an obscure bill, or one with broad public support, it might look silly.
Typically rule changes need 67 votes to pass, but on the first day of a new session they only require 51. So in January Reid could pass rule changes – he also is considering reducing filibusters in other ways – without Republicans.
His ploy might make it somewhat easier to get business done in the Senate, but the House is still controlled by Republicans for at least the next two years. And Speaker John Boehner vowed last week to reject anything that comes out of a streamlined Senate.
Naturally, when Reid was in the minority he abhorred the idea of changing the rules. When Republicans were considering a rule change to thwart Democrats blocking George W. Bush’s judicial nominees in 2005, Reid said: “Ultimately, this is about removing the last check in Washington against complete abuse of power, the right to extended debate.”
In 2005 a bipartisan Gang of 14 senators stepped in to solve the judicial-nominee fight without changing the rules, an outcome that Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson said “avoided going off and having a disaster of immense proportions,” comparing that to Reid’s proposal.
But in a 2005 AJC op-ed article, Isakson and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss came out in favor of a rule change to prevent filibusters of judicial nominees, writing: “We believe it is time to end this obstructionism and fulfill our constitutional duty.”
There was similar talk going around in the beginning of 2011, but Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on some minor rule changes such as eliminating the practice of “secret holds” on nominees, with no big movement on the filibuster. Some Republicans, pointing out that Reid uses rules trickery of his own to block their amendments, sound like they might be open to more substantial changes – but they don’t want them to arrive through the 51-vote loophole.
“That’s one piece of the puzzle,” Isakson said when asked about the talking filibuster. “I’m willing to talk about reforms of Senate rules as long as there’s an equal trade-off.”
A Lawrenceville pastor wants his congregation to know the good news about the Gospel of Mark. Dean Sweetman, senior pastor of the C3 Church, has challenged his members and anyone else interested to read the New Testament book in its entirety over the next year and post Instagram photos of their notes.