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Group sues Senate to scrap filibuster!
For years, critics of the filibuster have failed to convince senators to change the procedural delaying tactic. Now they’re taking their case to the courts.
The nonpartisan nonprofit Common Cause sued the U.S. Senate on Monday, challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster rules that require routine 60-vote thresholds for bills and nominations that often have majority support. Several House Democrats and three undocumented students who would be aided by the so-called DREAM Act also joined the suit.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, comes at a time of increased partisan gridlock in the Senate and amid complaints the filibuster is being abused by minority Republicans.
From 1981 to 2006, both parties used the filibuster when they were in the minority. During that period, the majority party in each Congress filed fewer than 90 cloture motions to overcome a filibuster by the minority.
But since Democrats seized power in fall 2006, Republicans have turned to the filibuster far more frequently. The majority has averaged about 140 cloture motions in both the 110th and 111th Congress. And Democrats are on pace to repeat that feat again this Congress.
In early 2011, an effort by junior Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to water down the filibuster failed in the face of opposition from more senior lawmakers. Part of the reason it’s been so difficult to overhaul the filibuster is because it requires two-thirds of senators – or 67 votes – to make any changes to Senate rules.
“They are putting the Senate in a straitjacket,” said Stephen Spaulding, staff counsel for Common Cause. “They cannot adopt their own rules, and that’s an issue we think the courts should settle.”
Filibuster reform backers got a big boost last week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the floor and endorsed Merkley and Udall’s efforts to weaken the filibuster. It was a reversal for the majority leader, who just a year earlier had struck a “gentleman’s agreement” with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to preserve the filibuster and defeat the Merkley-Udall proposal.
But Reid’s frustration reached a boiling point Thursday when Republicans blocked his effort to quickly take up the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, legislation which had cleared the House on an overwhelming bipartisan vote.
“If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rules,” Reid said last week, “because it’s been abused, abused, abused.”
The Senate had been expected to hold a vote Monday evening in a bid to break the GOP filibuster on the Ex-Im Bank bill, but Reid reached a deal with Republicans to immediately move to the bill Tuesday and hold votes on several GOP amendments.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said he found Reid’s change of heart peculiar given that for years he’s held up the filibuster as a useful parliamentary tool designed to protect the minority. At an event in March, Reid said the Senate was mired in gridlock because that’s how the Founding Fathers “set up this country.”
“Republicans had a chance to strip these minority rights when Republicans last took over the Senate but didn’t (even though it would have been to our advantage at the time),” Stewart wrote in an email. “And Democrats only seem to want to do it when they’re in the majority.”
In addition to Common Cause, three DREAM Act students and four House Democrats — Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson, both of Georgia, Michael Michaud of Maine and Keith Ellison of Minnesota — were named as plaintiffs in the suit.
The students, who were born outside the U.S. and brought to the country illegally by their parents, claim they were denied a path to citizenship because of the archaic 1975 filibuster rule. During the 2010 lame-duck session, the DREAM Act, backed by President Barack Obama, won passage in the House and attracted a simple majority of 55 votes in the Senate, but fell short of the 60 needed to break a GOP filibuster.
The Democratic lawmakers argue that their votes in the House have been “diluted” by the filibuster rule, since such bills as the DREAM Act and campaign-finance DISCLOSE Act passed the House and won backing from a majority of senators but fell short of the 60-vote threshold. The DISCLOSE Act garnered 59 votes in the upper chamber.
“These bills continually pass the House and get blocked in the Senate,” said Sarah Dufendach, vice president of legislative affairs for Common Cause, which pushed for the DISCLOSE Act. “Their vote is being diluted. Their constituency is being diluted.”
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