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Alexander says Dems' bid to change filibuster rules would spell disaster

7:50 AM, Dec 14, 2012   |    comments
Senator Lamar Alexander/file
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By Paul C. Barton, Tennessean Washington Bureau

If Senate Democrats carry out a dramatic maneuver to change one of the institution's most revered traditions, the filibuster, it will be "the end of the United States Senate," Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says.

By that, Alexander explained in an interview Thursday, the Senate "will become just like the House," where a simple majority vote wins every time and the chamber loses its historic function of acting as a brake on popular proposals to give them more judicious consideration.

The 72-year-old second-term lawmaker, a member of the Rules and Administration Committee, made the remarks as lawmakers sit possibly on the verge of a historic showdown over rules on use of the filibuster - the threat or use of extended debate to block a vote on a bill.

Once a filibuster begins, it takes 60 votes to end it and bring the bill in question to consideration for passage. A move to end a filibuster is called a "cloture" motion.

Democrats, who increased their Senate majority in the Nov. 6 election, are contemplating making a controversial declaration at the start of the 113th Congress in January that a mere majority is needed to change rules on such matters, not the 67 votes that have been the standard. They would make the pronouncement citing constitutional interpretations.

That way, they could proceed to change Rule No. 22, which describes acceptable conditions for filibustering.

Carrying out such a quick strike has been dubbed the "nuclear option."

Democrats see Republicans as having abused the filibuster in recent years to block many of the party's key initiatives, especially those of President Barack Obama. Many say the nuclear option may be the only way to change it.

"Since 2005, Republicans have led 385 filibusters. Their abuse has been unprecedented," said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

But Alexander and other Republicans say this possible Democratic action would rip apart centuries of consensus between the two parties about the need to protect the rights of the minority party.

Republicans, the Tennessee senator said, will gladly discuss changes in the filibuster and other procedures. But don't, he said, ram through rules changes through use of a simple-majority vote.

That could lead, he added, to too many bills coming over from the House and going like "a freight train to run through the Senate."

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee also expressed concern.

"Senator Corker is hopeful differences between the two parties can be worked out so the majority doesn't break the rules in order to change the rules, irreparably damaging the Senate, which provides an important check and balance in our democracy," Corker spokeswoman Laura Herzog said.

It used to be that senators attempting a filibuster actually had to talk on the floor of the chamber for hours and hours without end, much like actor Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Famous radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn called filibusters "democracy's greatest show - the right to talk your head off."

More recently, however, senators have come to accept the expressed intent to filibuster as the same as the "talking filibuster."

Some Democrats want to bring back the talking filibuster.

Alexander said that's fine with him.

"Senate rules require that, but the majority leader (Reid) doesn't enforce the rule," he said.

While filibusters get the attention, the Tennessee senator said they are more a symptom of other things wrong with the chamber's procedures.

Republicans often to resort to blocking procedures, he said, because Reid often won't let them offer germane amendments on bills. The procedure to head off the other party's proposed amendments is called "filling the tree."

The result, Alexander said, is that the body often comes to a standstill "with us sitting around on our duffs," something that none of its 100 members came to Washington to do.

"It's like working hard to get to the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing," the senator said.

Democrats see things differently.

"There is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg debate that goes on over what started first, Republicans filibustering or Senator Reid 'filling the tree' to (prevent amendments) ... and keep business moving along," said Jentleson, the Reid spokesman.

"But the easy way to solve the riddle is to look at 2009, when Republicans led 67 filibusters and Senator Reid only filled the tree four times. Senator Alexander is glossing over the fact that Republicans were abusing the filibuster long before Senator Reid started using the tools available to him to try and keep the Senate moving."

Alexander said he finds it ironic that Democrats would consider the nuclear option when they went ballistic themselves over Republican threats to use such a maneuver in 2005. Republicans wanted to bring an end to the Democratic filibusters of former President George W. Bush's judicial appointments. A compromise was worked out by a bipartisan group of senators that year .

Alexander acknowledges the work of the Senate the last few years has not been a pretty sight.

"What we really need is a change in behavior, not a change in rules," he said.

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