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Reed at heart of filibuster fight

The "fiscal cliff" may be front-and-center in Washington right now. But there is another interesting battle underway - over the use of the filbuster in Senate. And Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed could play a pivotal role in its outcome.

The filibuster, of course, allows the minority party to spike legislation favored by the majority. Once a rarely used manuever, it has become increasingly commonplace. Timothy Noah of The New Republic recently chronicled its expanded use in an editorial by counting the "cloture votes" used to bring filibusters to an end:

The number of cloture votes ballooned from 23 in 1985–1986 to 43 in 1987–1988 and a staggering 112 in 2007–2008. In the bad old segregationist days, cloture votes had never exceeded ten. Harry Truman’s famous “do-nothing” Congress of 1947–1948 had none at all. Today, cloture votes are so common that young people could be forgiven for believing the Constitution requires 60 votes for Senate passage of any bill.

Indeed, the filibuster increasingly seems a real impediment to democracy. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is taking a swipe at the practice - sort of.

Reid isn't attempting to jettison the practice altogether. Rather, he's attempting to ban filibusters aimed at blocking mere debate on an issue. He's also targeting filibusters used to stop House-Senate conferences on legislation. And he wants to reinstitute an old rule requiring senators to actually take to the floor and prattle on for hours if they want to filibuster.

Normally, rules changes - approved at the beginning of a new Congress - require a two-thirds vote. Republican opposition to Reid's proposals make reaching that threshold impossible. But he believes he can push through the changes with a simple majority, using the so-called "nuclear option."

With Democrats in control of the Senate, that shouldn't be a problem, right? Actually, several Democrats are expressing doubts, concerned about disturbing the comity of the chamber. Senators Dianne Feinstein (California), Carl Levin (Michigan), and Mark Pryor (Arkansas) are most reluctant.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson pasted the idea, then appeared to backtrack. Others, like Massachusetts Senator John Kerry have suggested they'll probably vote for the changes, but haven't committed. And Washington publication The Hill reports that two senators - perhaps pivotal to the final outcome - are undecided: Max Baucus of Montana and Rhode Island's Reed.

“I’m going to work my way through it,” said Reed. “It’s all part of the idea of how you effect change.

“I’m looking at everything,” he said.

Reed's deliberation is understandable. But from a distance, the notion of a meaningful Senate collegiality - particularly with Mitch McConnell running the GOP caucus - seems a little antiquated. We'll see where Reed comes out. I've got a call into his office.


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