The U.S. Senate convened yesterday for the first session of the 112th Congress. It did some procedural work, honored Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, for being the longest serving woman senator, talked until after sundown and recessed until Jan. 25.

The talk, however, was significant. Sens. Tom Udall, D-NM, Tom Harkin, D-IA and Jeff Merkley, D-OR introduced a rules reform package aimed at curbing the abuses of the filibuster.

The clear and undeniable fact is that the Senate is broken, Merkley said. Thoughtful deliberation does not occur and far too much gets lost in a tangle of obstruction and delay. Our proposal will help restore the Senate to what the American people believe it ought to be - an institution that respects both minority and majority rights and allows fair consideration, debate and decisions on legislation and nominations.

The filibuster is the procedure whereby a single senator can object to any unanimous consent proposal to bring a measure to a vote. When the objection is made, the Senate may not proceed to a vote on the particular measure, but must first override the filibuster with a supermajority of 60 votes - a procedure called a cloture vote - before it can vote on the measure.

As Merkley pointed out, contrary to traditional depictions, the objecting senator does not have to speak continuously on the Senate floor to sustain his or her objection.

But according to the new rules, if adopted, he will.

Udall pointed out that there have been more filibusters since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980.

The unprecedented abuse of the filibuster, of secret holds, and of other procedural tactics routinely prevents the Senate from getting its work done, Udall said. It prevents us from doing the job the American people sent us here to do.

Republicans held 41 Senate seats in 2010, yet effectively used the filibuster to kill Democratic-backed legislation, like the Dream Act, and to delay other legislation, like the unemployment insurance extension, until the majority party agreed to back Republican proposals.

Harkin, Merkley and Udall said that not only did the minority party stall and kill significant legislation with the filibuster, but also slowed Senate activity to a crawl. With so much time used up trying to woo a few Republicans for a supermajority on big issues, a lot of Senate business was never attended to.

The Senate did not adopt a budget in 2010 or pass any appropriations bill; over 400 House bills went unaddressed in the Senate; 125 executive appointments were left to languish - what Merkley called an abuse of the Senate's 'advise and consent' responsibilities - and 48 judicial nominations have not been voted on.

The Senators are not proposing a rules change to lower the supermajority from 60 or even to make it a simple majority, as some lawmakers and members of the public have called for. Rather, they are proposing changes that would make filibustering more difficult and other reforms aimed at removing some of the reasons Republicans say they are forced to filibuster.

The rules reform package includes five provisions that would do the following:

  • Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed: Makes motions to proceed not subject to a filibuster, but provides for two hours of debate.
  • Eliminate Secret Holds: Prohibits one senator from objecting on behalf of another, unless he or she discloses the name of the senator with the objection. This is a simple solution to address a longstanding problem.
  • Guarantee Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority: Protects the rights of the minority to offer amendments following cloture filing, provided the amendments are germane and have been filed in a timely manner.
  • Talking Filibuster: Senators opposed to proceeding to final passage will be required to continue debate as long as the subject of the cloture vote or an amendment, motion, point of order, or other related matter is the pending business.
  • Expedite Nominations: Provide for two hours of post-cloture debate time for nominees. Post cloture time is meant for debating and voting on amendments - something that is not possible on nominations. Instead, the minority now requires the Senate use this time simply to prevent it from moving on to other business.

Senator Lamar Alexander, R-TN, spoke for the Republicans who are opposing the change.

What a filibuster does is say 'you are not going to pass through the Senate anything unless at least some Republicans and some Democrats agree - unless you have consensus,' Alexander said.

Udall responded that a provision of the package guarantees the minority party the right to introduce amendments. But he said the minority should not be able to continuously thwart the majority party.

We should adopt rules that allow a majority to act, while protecting the minority's right to be heard, Udall said. Whichever party is in the majority - they must be able to do the people's business.

Normally, a change in Senate rules would require a two/thirds majority, or 67 votes, which would be all but impossible for Democrats to muster. However, on the day that a new Congress convenes, rule changes can be made by a simple majority.

Therefore, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, called the Senate into recess after Udall, Harkin and Merkley introduced their proposed reform. When the Senate returns on Jan. 25, it will proceed as though it is still the first day of the session and the simple majority vote for passage will still apply.

Democrats said they did not want to force a vote yesterday, so as to give the Republicans, and the public, a chance to study and understand the proposed changes.