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This Filibuster Fix will Revive the Senate Itself

June 18th, 2021 by dk

Everybody wants to fix the filibuster. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to require nonstop talking again. Stacey Abrams wants to exempt voting rights bills from the 60-vote requirement. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests the threshold to end debate should be lowered to 55. Former President Barack Obama wants the filibuster discarded altogether.

The truth is that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can change the filibuster rule in whatever way he wants, provided he has the unanimous support of his caucus. Unfortunately for him, 50 votes for any of the proposed remedies is not yet apparent. Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin has said he is open to modest filibuster reforms, but he hasn’t clarified what those might be.

And so the casting about continues, searching for a way to increase bipartisanship and decrease obstruction in the United States Senate. I’ll tell you my own suggestion, but not until I show why Democrats shouldn’t be let off the hook for how the Senate has devolved.

Blame Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the abuse of the filibuster all you want. It was Harry Reid and President Obama who opened Pandora’s Box.

Obama’s favorite sport was basketball — a non-contact sport. Reid was a former boxer, never backing away from the rough-and-tumble. Obama might have used Reid as a wingman, compensating for his relative inexperience on Capitol Hill. Instead, Reid became his henchman, doing the dirty work Obama disdained.

Obama vetoed only 12 bills over eight years. Congress overrode only one. It passed the Senate 97-1. (Reid dissented alone.) Obama avoided legislative battles by having Reid block them. Legendary Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer referred to Reid as “[Obama’s] living veto pen.”

There’s more. Reid retained the power to change the filibuster rule whenever he wanted. Senate rules allow such a change only on the first day of each new legislative session. What no one noticed until Reid is that the Senate’s “day” doesn’t end until leadership gavels out the day’s business. Reid refused to gavel out, so every day was technically a continuation of the first legislative day.

Republicans and McConnell don’t own the franchise of Senatorial cynicism.

So what can be done to promote Senate bipartisanship and discourage Senate obstructionism? Schumer should amplify an equally important institutional tradition. Unlike the leadership-driven House, the Senate has traditionally given individual Senators extraordinary power. (Google “blue slip” for just one example.) These powers usually slow or stop things, but not always.

Lower the threshold to end Senate debate from 60 to whatever the majority caucus has, plus one or two. This will give individual Senators in the minority the opportunity to shape and propel the majority’s legislative agenda. Instead of Schumer having to constantly worry about Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, let McConnell take a turn worrying about Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski.

This would do more than reform the filibuster. Schumer and Democrats can reform the Senate itself, giving power back to members that’s been slowly seized by leadership. Oh, and limit future rule changes to the first real day of each new legislative session.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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