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One of the Senate’s leading defenders of tradition is endorsing a rules change to curb perceived filibuster abuse.
In a wide-ranging interview with Roll Call, Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, the longest-serving active Senator, blessed modifying rules to limit debate on procedural motions.
In a shift, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says that if he is still the Majority Leader next January, he will move to eliminate the ability to filibuster motions to proceed to legislation that prevent consideration of bills before debate even begins. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is vociferously opposing the change. The Kentucky Republican says Reid has caused the problem through an unprecedented use of procedural tools to prevent amendments. Inouye is siding with Reid.
“It’s such a routine thing: ‘Let’s take this up.’ If you’re against it, why don’t you just filibuster the bill?” the Hawaii Democrat said.
Inouye cautioned against more extreme measures that might make the Senate function like the House.
“If there’s going to be a change in the filibuster rules, I hope we can work out something so that something like motion to proceed is not filibustered. I am for the filibuster,” Inouye said. “I have voted against wiping out filibusters because I represent a very small state, and my state is a state of minorities. We don’t have a majority group, and we believe in giving all minorities their day in court.”
The protection of minority rights has been intensely personal for Inouye. Last Dec. 7, on the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he gave a rare floor speech to not only recount seeing Japanese planes fly over Hawaii, but also to remind the audience in the gallery and on C-SPAN of the events that followed, including the internment of more than 100,000 fellow Americans of Japanese descent.
In his interview with Roll Call last week, he recalled that during his early years as a Senator, filibusters were quite infrequent. Old bull Southern Democrats trying to block civil rights legislation led the longest filibusters.
“Now, one may have taken more than a week. Twenty-four hours a day, but it was something where opposition could express their thoughts in adequate fashion,” Inouye said. “At the appropriate time, it came for the vote.”
Above Inouye’s desk in the corner of his spacious office at the far end of one of the Capitol’s iconic Brumidi corridors hangs a painting of Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman, the delegates to the Constitution convention who crafted the “Connecticut Compromise,” which led to the bicameral legislature in which the Senate would have equal representation from each state.
“I put that there because if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Inouye said.
While he endorsed the rules changes, the veteran legislator also stressed the need for a return to the traditional comity of the chamber.
Unlike other committees, the Appropriations panel calls the top member of the minority party the “vice chairman.”
“I’ve always insisted that if I’m going to be speaking to some administration official that my vice chairman is sitting there — so it’s not a secret deal between the administration and me as chairman of the committee, and I think that makes a difference,” Inouye said.
The Appropriations Committee plans to finish work on 11 of the 12 spending bills before departing for August recess, Inouye says, even though none have reached the floor.
Only the spending bills that fund the Health and Human Services and Treasury Departments provoked partisan splits at the committee — largely because Republicans opposed funding implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
“The Appropriations Committee has been able to maintain some tangible relationship of bipartisanship, and I maintain that if we can do it with all these conflicting views and projects that this place should be able to,” Inouye said. “It’s going to take a little while.”
Earlier in the year, Reid and McConnell pledged to work to bring spending bills to the floor. Inouye was clearly as frustrated as other Senate appropriators that the plan did not materialize.
“I think that both of them were genuine,” Inouye said, in reference to Reid and McConnell, who have both served as Appropriations subcommittee chairmen, or cardinals, during their Senate careers.
“But, I suppose there are some on both sides that have different ideas, and as much as I want regular order, I am part of a family,” Inouye said. “You can’t always say ‘no’ to your father.”
Despite the recent frustrations, Inouye has resisted any temptation to become despondent in response to the inability to get things done.
“The time will come, and it will become much more pleasant,” he said.
Inouye says he plans to run for re-election in 2016 at age 92, moving him closer to the service record of his predecessor atop the Appropriations Committee, the legendary Democrat from West Virginia, the late Sen. Robert Byrd.
If he stays healthy, Inouye should have little trouble holding his seat. He captured almost 75 percent of the vote in 2010. He is doing his best to hold onto his Appropriations gavel as well.
“I have, as the record will show, maxed out on [campaign contributions to] all 23 candidates, and I hope that we maintain the majority,” Inouye said, before adding that he would “confess” to giving money to help unseat GOP incumbents.
“I’m just lucky,” said Inouye, who lost his right arm while hurling grenades at German machine guns in Italy to protect his Army platoon during World War II in an act of bravery that earned him the Medal of Honor.