Sen. Harry Reid set a record during the 111th Congress by becoming the chamber’s most successful Majority Leader in history at killing attempted filibusters.
Though the Nevada Democrat’s batting average took a nose dive in 2010, Reid won 69 percent of his total attempts to shut down threatened filibusters in the two years of the 111th Congress that began January 2009.
Two former Majority Leaders — Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) — share the next best record; both won 63 percent of the time in the 109th Congress and the 94th Congress, respectively.
“While it is good news for the American people that Sen. Reid and the Democratic caucus have been able to overcome a record number of filibusters, it is at the same time unfortunate that our Republican colleagues have decided that the appropriate way to govern is to essentially try not to do anything,” Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said. “Sen. Reid will continue to work to ensure that we create jobs and turn our economy around. It is our hope that Senators on the other side of the aisle will end their record of obstruction and put the business of the American people before politics.”
Reid largely achieved his record in 2009, not 2010. In the first year of the session, Reid won 35 of 39 — a stunning 90 percent — of his attempts to close debate, or invoke cloture, on a variety of measures and nominations.
However, in 2010, his average dropped to 54 percent, when he won 28 cloture votes and lost 24. Sixty votes are needed to invoke cloture and kill a filibuster.
One senior Senate Democratic aide said the disparity between 2009 and 2010 can largely be attributed to both parties’ maneuvering during a tough election year. Reid couldn’t get enough votes to reach cloture without somebody crossing the aisle. And while it behooved Republicans to stick together last year, Democrats also used some cloture votes as a way to create a clear contrast between the parties.
“As we got closer to the midterm elections, it made more sense to set up those contrasting votes,” the aide said. “As the tea party showed its teeth more, you had fewer instances where [moderate Republican Senators] were willing to cross the aisle.”
One senior Senate GOP aide said Reid might have encountered fewer filibuster attempts if he had sought out minority input in legislation more often. Of course, Democrats have argued Republicans were the ones eschewing bipartisanship.
Either way, cloture votes have become much more common in recent years as the minority has used them not just as an attempt to block bills but also as a way to slow down the majority’s agenda. Rarely do modern-day filibusters result in one or more Senators holding the floor and trying to talk a bill to death. Instead, the minority often threatens filibusters as a way to limit the majority’s ability to easily bring bills to the floor for debate. Just one Senator can block a motion to proceed to a bill, and as more Senators are willing to do that, the call for filibuster-killing cloture votes has risen, too.
The current partisan clash over cloture votes has largely come down to GOP objections to bringing many measures up for debate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has repeatedly said Republicans have been trying to ensure their right to offer amendments on the floor.
On Dec. 18, McConnell took to the floor to highlight what he called majority Democrat’s “dubious record” of “denying the minority its right to amendment a total of 43 times.”
McConnell noted that Frist, over a similar four-year period, used the procedure known as filling the amendment tree, only 15 times to prevent then-minority Democrats from offering amendments.
“The current Majority has blocked the minority from offering amendments more often than the last six Majority Leaders combined,” McConnell asserted.
Besides reacting to McConnell’s push for “minority rights,” Reid also has attempted to use the cloture motion as a bludgeon in recent years. For example, Reid held three separate cloture votes on this spring’s financial regulatory reform measure in an attempt to put public pressure on wavering Republicans, Democratic aides acknowledged. The gambit worked, with the GOP allowing the bill to come to the floor by unanimous consent shortly after the third cloture vote.
On other votes, such as two separate roll calls on a campaign finance measure designed to mitigate the effects of a recent Supreme Court decision, Reid knew he didn’t have the votes, but he hoped to put Republicans on record as supporting corporate money in elections, Democratic aides have said.
Reid also was able to reverse his fortunes on some cloture motions by holding a second procedural vote to reconsider the filibuster weeks after the first vote failed. For example, Reid was able to kill filibusters of an unemployment benefits bill and his own travel promotion measure when he brought those issues back to the floor for a second time.
When Mansfield set his record in 1976, filibuster rules had just been changed to set the threshold for cutting off debate at 60 votes, instead of 67. Mansfield’s majority boasted 61 votes, while Frist set his record with only 55 caucus members.
Reid has sometimes had the advantage of an outsized majority, but he primarily operated with 58 or 59 votes. He only had 60 Members of the Democratic caucus for six months of the past two years. That was the time between Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) delayed July 2009 swearing-in and the special election win of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in January 2010.
Regardless of whether he had 60 caucus members, Reid rarely won without the votes of at least a few Republicans. That was largely because of the illnesses and subsequent deaths of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2009 and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in 2010.
However, the controversial health care reform bill would not have likely passed the Senate without Reid’s 60-strong caucus, given all the key cloture votes broke down along party lines.
In the 110th Congress, Reid set the record for overall cloture motion filings with 112, but he only won 54 percent of the time with a small 51-vote majority. This Congress, he filed cloture only 91 times.
In the 112th Congress, which begins Wednesday, Reid will have only 53 Members of the Democratic caucus, making it likely his record in 2011 and 2012 will look more like the 110th Congress than the 111th.