It may have been "a sad day in the history of the Senate" for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but for the liberal activists and lawmakers who assembled just off the Senate floor Thursday, the mortal wound Democrats delivered to the filibuster was cause for celebration.
The whooping and cheering began inside Mansfield Room even before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid arrived, and continued as he and his fellow filibuster-slayers strode in triumphantly into room. It was one of two separate raucous standing ovations Reid would receive. "Our heroes have arrived!" announced Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist, who served as emcee for the event—part press conference, part victory rally.
"If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of gridlock breaking and progress coming, because of what these men did today on the floor of the United States Senate," Begala continued. "It's a good day for democracy!"
The ebullient mood was markedly different from the somber press conference Reid and other Democratic leaders delivered upstairs just moments earlier, when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., echoed McConnell in calling Thursday "a sad day," explaining that Democrats were reluctantly forced to invoke the "nuclear option" because of the tea party's intransigence.
But for liberal activists, who have spent the past four years watching their and President Obama's agenda stymied at every turn by Republican filibusters, the detonation was long overdue. "Congratulations to all the people out there who have been gathering signatures and who have been on this for so long—for so so long," said Sen. Tom Harkin, who will retire next year after spending more than 20 years fighting the filibuster.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who along with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., injected new life into the anti-filibuster campaign in recent years, noted that one his predecessors, the late Sen. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, started working on filibuster reform back in the 1940s.
Udall added that the two greatest "accomplishments" in the filibuster's history were to block an anti-lynching bill and then the Civil Rights Act. "Anybody who wants to stand with the filibuster, that's where you're standing," he said. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who have been agitating against the filibuster and building political support in the House, murmured in agreement as they stood behind the podium.
Filibuster reform has never had unanimous support among liberals, some of whom worry about what a future Republican administration might bring, particularly on abortion rights. But judging by the flood of glowing press releases, progressives have had enough of the GOP blockade and see filibuster reform as a historical—and perhaps inevitable—achievement both for themselves and for good government.
"Just think of it: From now on the president, any president—Republican or Democrat—can put together the executive branch of government with a majority vote," Harkin said dreamily. "There were some people that needed to be convinced. And we don't need to go into that. But they were convinced," he added with a chuckle.
Having risen from Capitol Police officer, to a member of the House, to the Senate, and then finally majority leader, Reid is a creature of the institution and was reluctant to change the rules, often to the frustration of his base. Merkley said that when he first mentioned the issue to Reid, the leader covered his ears with his hands as if to say, "I don't want to hear about it." A coalition of groups including Democracy for America and CREDO Action had collected almost 300,000 signatures pushing Reid to act, but he gave them a victory before they even had the chance to deliver them.
Reid now sees filibuster reform as necessary to preserving the Senate at a time when Congress has a 9 percent approval rating. He's apologized for his past opposition, and liberals were eager to embrace him on this issue.
Brad Woodhouse, the former Democratic National Committee spokesman who now runs Americans United For Change, said the rule change executed Thursday will go down in history as the "Reid rule."
Reid even took a moment to poke fun at Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., without mentioning him by name. "I know one senator is in trouble for plagiarism, but I plagiarize Paul all the time," he said, adding that he would steal Begala's joke about 41 senators walking into a bar and shutting the place down, but replacing "bar" with "restaurant," presumably in honor of his teetotaling.
"There's the man of steel and then there's the man with the steel spine, Harry Reid," said Harkin. "Thank you for bringing the Senate into the 21st century."
This article appears in the November 22, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.