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Fed up with gridlock on Capitol Hill, an unlikely coalition of leading environmental, labor and civil rights groups is mobilizing to push for an overhaul of Senate filibuster, campaign finance and voting rules.
Organizers say this emerging “democracy” movement is prompting mainstream progressive groups to branch beyond their core issues to take on procedural and institutional battles typically left to government watchdogs. The Senate filibuster, unrestricted political money and curbs on ballot access are all blocking action on broader policy issues, from clean energy to jobs, they argue.
Key organizers include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Communications Workers of America and the NAACP, whose leaders are convening a Dec. 10 meeting in Washington of some 75 progressive organizations.
“Lots of people have had lots of different agendas, and it’s time to unite and bring together organizations that haven’t been good government groups, and start to engage in these process issues,” said George Kohl, a senior director at the CWA.
The coalition has no formal name or policy agenda yet, but it has rallied behind certain basic goals. The leaders are part of a broader effort dubbed Fix the Senate Now that this week relaunched a 2010 lobbying campaign to push for curbs on the Senate filibuster. That coalition also includes the Alliance for Justice, Common Cause and the United Auto Workers.
Other rallying points for organizers include campaign finance bills focused on disclosure and public financing as well as state election laws that facilitate voter registration and early voting. The purpose is not to start from square one, said Sierra Club National Political Director Cathy Duvall, but to work with existing campaign finance and voting rights groups to leverage support for fixes.
“The Sierra Club is an environmental organization; we are not going to propose to be the premier organization on campaign finance reform,” Duvall said. She added that issue groups such as the Sierra Club “are bringing scope, scale and capacity to the conversation.”
The Dec. 10 meeting is just one of several that progressive organizers, in various configurations, are having following Election Day, said Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
“We do think that there is a real democracy moment right now,” Weiser said. “People are really noticing that the systems in our democracy are in need of revitalization, that there are serious problems, and they are really widespread ... there’s the voting system, there’s the explosion of money in politics, there’s the dysfunctionality in Congress.”
The advocates face an uphill battle both on Capitol Hill and within their own ranks. The proliferation of new proposals, including an ambitious effort to curb super PACs and lobbyist fundraising spearheaded by the nascent Represent.Us campaign, could complicate lobbying efforts.
Republicans on Capitol Hill also remain resistant to rules changes across the board. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., met with members of the conservative Republican Study Committee this week to reiterate his opposition to political money curbs that he argues would violate the First Amendment.
McConnell has also bitterly criticized filibuster rules changes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has suggested that he might enact with a simple Senate majority on day one of the new Congress. McConnell has called this a move “to break the rules to change the rules.”
Reid is mulling changes that would not end the filibuster outright but would limit debate on motions to proceed with votes on bills or with House-Senate conference negotiations. He also would require so-called talking filibusters, meaning that a Senator could not block action without active floor debate.
“Senate rules have been abused to prevent any discussion of any serious legislation,” said the CWA’s Kohl. Fix the Senate Now coalition members have lobbied individual senators, and Common Cause has launched a petition drive. Common Cause has also mounted a legal challenge to the filibuster and is scheduled to hold a news conference Dec. 10, when the case is heard in federal district court.
Advocates of filibuster restrictions maintain that Reid has the votes to change the rules with a simple majority. But even some Democrats — most notably the senior senators known as “Old Bulls” — mindful that they are bound to return at some point to the minority, have expressed reservations about changing longtime Senate rules.
Still, Fix the Senate Now coalition members say new allies keep signing on to help them.
“I think we’re going to see more and more groups coming out and supporting this in different ways,” Brennan Center counsel Diana Kasdan said.