Campaign to Remake Senate Begins

Freshman, Sophomore Democrats Make Good on Vow to Change Washington

Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:40pm

Having campaigned on broad promises to change the way Washington works, freshman and sophomore Democratic Senators finally have the backing from their leaders to try to transform the way the chamber’s game is played.

The first step has been a sustained campaign to root out Republicans who are blocking 96 of President Barack Obama’s nominees. The next step, they say, could be a wholesale rewrite of Senate filibuster rules.

“The voters of this country sent 21 new Democratic Senators to Washington, and that group of people are strong and smart and they’re not willing to accept that things have always been done that way,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), elected in 2006, said last week.

Though they have been in the Senate for a short time, junior Members say they have already identified what is wrong with the Senate: its strict adherence to traditions, which, they say, are currently leading to gridlock as Republicans increase the use of procedural roadblocks that in decades past were used more sparingly. Of course, GOP Senators had the same complaint about Democrats just a few years ago, but the current minority party has attempted to filibuster more often in the past three and a half years than their predecessors.

The point McCaskill and other rookies are trying to make is that elections have consequences, and the push to shake up the Senate’s inner workings is an effort to make good on the promises they made on the campaign trail in 2006 and 2008.

“This group is anxious to say to leadership and to some of the more senior Members, ‘We respect you. We respect your seniority. We respect many of the traditions, but you’ve got to take a look in the mirror and figure out if the way we’re doing it makes sense,'” McCaskill said.

“We are just not going to accept business as usual when business as usual means no business gets done,” echoed Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a member of the 2006 class.

McCaskill and Klobuchar have been part of the group that has been leading the charge on the Senate floor in recent weeks to highlight Republican attempts to block Obama’s nominees, arguing GOP Senators are abusing the secret holds process. The informal practice has the effect of preventing the Senate from quickly disposing of otherwise noncontroversial business.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), elected in 2008, said dealing with secret holds is just the beginning of a broader campaign by the junior classes to change Senate rules.

“It’s a small piece of what’s wrong with the Senate process,” Merkley said. “The Senate has become dysfunctional with the routine use of the supermajority [for passage of legislation]. … But this alone won’t change the fundamental structure of the Senate.”

Merkley said he and others in his party believe Democrats should force rules changes by a simple majority — or 51 votes — rather than the 67 votes needed under current rules. Merkley cited a precedent from 1975 in which the then-Democratic majority changed the filibuster rules in that way. The key, Merkley said, is to change the rules at the beginning of a new Congress, rather than midsession when a 67-vote threshold for rules changes would already be in effect.

The most serious change under consideration, senior aides and Senators said, would be to eliminate the minority’s ability to filibuster a motion to proceed, which is essentially the first step in kicking off debate on a bill or nomination. Sixty votes would still be needed to cut off debate on a bill, however.

While that change will have to wait until next year, McCaskill has convinced all of her Democratic colleagues — except, significantly, the Dean of the Senate, Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) — to sign on to a letter pledging not to use the practice of secret holds.

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was the first Republican to join the effort, and McCaskill said she’s “pretty jazzed right now” that her efforts might actually change the practice.

In a body that clings to tradition, McCaskill is reveling in the fact that she has won the support of long-serving lawmakers such as Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Whereas many Members pledge to change Congress only to run into significant hurdles from their more senior colleagues and party leaders, junior Democrats said the entire Senate Democratic leadership — Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) — has been supportive.

“Sen. Reid charged Sen. [Mark] Warner [D-Va.] with organizing a group of freshmen to bring attention to the issue,” Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said. “Many of the freshmen have a unique interest in this process given that their judges, U.S. marshals, and other nominees are stalled for unclear and secret reasons. We believe their efforts are productive in calling attention to a growing abuse of the Senate’s advise and consent responsibilities.”

What’s more, Schumer, as Rules and Administration chairman, has been holding hearings on precedents for changing Senate rules, particularly on the filibuster.

Republicans, however, dismissed the Democrats’ efforts, saying it is a pointless exercise that has nothing to do with solving the nation’s problems.

“I can’t imagine a less significant effort to change how Washington works than hand-wringing over putting bureaucrats on boards in Washington, D.C.,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. “I think most Americans could identify with an effort to eliminate the boards altogether more than this waste of time. The only thing this effort does is reinforce America’s suspicion that politicians in D.C. have absolutely no clue what is important to this country.”

Even Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — who has mounted a campaign of his own to do away with the “hot line” process that allows bills to be passed with little to no scrutiny — questioned the Democrats’ priorities when it comes to changing the way the system functions. He said the Senate has bigger problems than secret holds.

“Disclosing so-called secret holds is not the fundamental problem,” Coburn said in a statement. “The problem that impacts our country is secret spending, secret deliberations and the McCarthyite hotline process.”