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Majority Does Not Rule in Filibuster-Filled 111th Congress Majority Does Not Rule in Filibuster-Filled 111th Congress

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Majority Does Not Rule in Filibuster-Filled 111th Congress


U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) ( C), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (R), and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) walk toward the podium to speak to the media on Capitol Hill December 14, 2010 in Washington, DC.

As the 111th Congress hurtles to a close, more and more bills are dying despite receiving majority votes in the Senate, and in some cases, the House as well.

With congressional Republicans looking forward to controlling the House and a larger chunk of the Senate, GOP senators are wielding the threat of a filibuster with a vengeance.


While Democratic leaders have been able to overcome filibusters in most cases, some of this year’s most high-profile legislation has fallen victim to the blocking effort, despite having support from the majority of senators.

At least eight major pieces of legislation have been entirely halted by filibusters in this Congress—six since September, including three in the past 10 days alone—although each bill received more than 50 votes in the Senate. Five of those eight passed in some form with a majority vote in the House before failing to achieve a “super majority” vote in the Senate.

The stalled legislation includes the Disclose Act, a defense authorization bill that included a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and a bill that would help fund health care for 9/11 responders.


All fell just short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and overcome a filibuster. The repeal of the ban on gays openly serving in the military, for example, “failed” 57-40 on December 9.

It has long been a principle of American civics that a bill receiving simple majority votes in both the House and the Senate, and if signed by the president, becomes law. But now critics say the frequent use of the filibuster rule is undermining that constitutional principle by forcing bills to garner at least 60 votes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has filed nearly every cloture motion in the past two years and, perhaps predictably, accuses the Republican minority of creating gridlock.


“It is unfortunate that Senate Republicans have time and time again abused Senate rules to slow or stop us from working on behalf of the American people,” said Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle. “Senator Reid understands the concerns of senators and the American people about the ability for a small minority of the minority to prevent the Senate from legislating.”

Despite this, Lachapelle touts Reid’s record in overcoming filibusters. Of the 132 cloture votes in the 111th Congress, at least 24 have failed. Of those, eight bills and one judicial nomination have been outright scuttled so far.

In a speech on December 2, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized Democrats for complaining about filibuster rules and proposing legislation that they know won’t pass in the Senate.

“Let’s face it: Most Americans aren’t particularly interested in the things Democrat leaders have put at the top of their to-do list,” he said. “They thought they put a restraining order on Democrat partisan priorities early last month. … Filibuster rules don’t create jobs.”

But GOP use of the filibuster began long before the November 2 election changed the political outlook in Washington. In 2009, the Senate failed to invoke cloture four times, while 2010 saw 20 cloture votes fail, including 15 before Election Day, according to a National Journal Daily analysis of Senate statistics.

All but three of those failed cloture motions received more than 50 votes in support.

Since 2006, the number of cloture motions filed has exploded, from 68 just four years ago to at least 132 motions in the 111th Congress, according to Senate statistics.

The Senate averaged about one filibuster a year until 1970, while in the last two sessions it has averaged 70 per year, according to Democracy Rules, a coalition pushing for reform.

The time has come to reexamine the Senate rule, said Caroline Fredrickson, executive director of the American Constitution Society.

“Looking at the Constitution shows that the filibuster was never a part of the Framers’ original plan,” she said. “The filibuster is created in Senate rules, and has no basis in the Constitution. It is ripe for reconsideration.”

The number of filibusters has many observers calling the Senate broken and dysfunctional, and some senators agree.

When the 112th Congress convenes next year, senators will likely face a proposal by Tom Udall, D-N.M., who blames the filibuster for “backroom deals and partisan gridlock rather than open, honest debate.”

“The result is an institution that is unable to address the many challenges our country faces,” Udall wrote on his blog. “Senators were sent to Washington to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on bills, not to block them from ever coming up for debate.”

Udall’s “Constitutional Option” would ask the senators to change the Senate rules at the beginning of the session, a vote that requires only a simple majority to pass.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says his nearly nine-hour filibuster last week is the way it’s supposed to be.

Sanders took to the floor to protest the proposed tax compromise, which eventually passed the Senate.

While the 111th Congress has been marked by more than 100 loosely described “filibusters,” in reality the mere threat of a filibuster has forced many measures to achieve 60-vote “super majority” support. But Sanders’ speech was the first such filibuster since 1992.

Other proposals to remedy the situation include a process that would gradually lower the vote needed to invoke cloture, and a proposal to require senators to emulate Sanders and stay on the Senate floor to maintain their block.

Sanders’s effort was reminiscent of days past, and although the tax deal passed in the end, Sanders said the speech achieved its purpose.

“I wanted to let my opinion known and I wanted people to pay attention,” he told National Journal Daily. “And that’s what the filibuster is for.”

Sanders said the filibuster protects the important right for a senator to show his opposition, but the rule has been “abused” in recent years.

“We need to have the right to stand up and make a statement, but it just makes sense to prevent the abuse that we’ve seen,” he said.







H.R. 847

James Zadroga 9/11 Health And Compensation Act of 2010

Provides funds for health care of 9/11 emergency responders and clean-up workers suffering from the after effects of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.



S. 3454

Defense Authorization

Provides funding for the Department of Defense and each arm of the military, among other national defense agencies. This version included a provision to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't' tell" policy which prohibits openly gay people from serving.



S. 3991

Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2010

Grants emergency workers basic collective bargaining rights.



S. 3985

Emergency Senior Citizens Relief Act of 2010

Provides a one-time $250 payment to senior citizens to offset a lack of any Social Security cost-of-living adjustment in the coming year.



S. 3772

Paycheck Fairness Act

Revises the law to further prevent pay discrimination based on sex.



S. 3816

Creating American Jobs And Ending Offshoring Act

Eliminates tax provisions that effectively reward companies for moving overseas. This bill was opposed by business groups that claimed it would hurt American companies' ability to compete in other countries.



S. 3628

Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act (Disclose Act)

Written in response to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, this bill would require donors and sponsors to personally approve TV ads, as candidates are required to do.



H.R. 4213

Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010

While many extensions of unemployment benefits contained in this bill eventually passed, some did not.


This article appears in the December 17, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.

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