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Stevenson: In Senate, ‘Motion To Proceed’ Should Be Non-Debatable

Those holds aren’t in the rules, but they are the result of rules that require, for example, the Senate to take up bills and nominations in the order they were added to the calendar — that is, oldest first, with more urgent matters or more recent versions delayed until all previous matters have been disposed of.

A non-debatable motion to proceed could still be rejected by majority vote, and a matter being debated could still be filibustered, but the opponents would have to muster their troops, whereas now a single Member can hold the whole Senate hostage.

There are other rules changes that the Senate might adopt to have a more orderly and businesslike legislative process.

It could change the rule (XIX) that requires that “all debate shall be germane and confined to the specific question then pending before the Senate” for only the first three hours and it could enforce more rigorously the section of that rule that “no Senator shall speak more than twice upon any one question in debate on the same legislative day.”

Senators could also drop the provision saying that the rules continue from one Congress to another unless changed by a two-thirds vote. That was added in 1959 under pressure from Senators fighting civil rights bills in order to overturn a ruling that would have allowed each new Congress to adopt rules by majority vote – as the House of Representatives does every two years.

But if Senators are unwilling to change the basic rule on filibusters, they should at least make the motion to proceed non-debatable so that the Senate can get to work without petty delays.

Charles A. Stevenson was a Senate staffer for 22 years; he now teaches at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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