Today’s Senate Roadblock Is Tomorrow’s Safeguard
The Senate has a reputation for being a slow-moving and conservative institution, but its recent political history is one of volatility: Since 1980, the party holding the majority has changed nine times and even had a 50-50 tie.
That might be one reason senators tend to tread carefully in considering changes to how the chamber votes, because today’s procedural roadblock can become tomorrow’s minority safeguard.
The issue is being hashed out both inside and out of the Senate. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is heading up a working group of Republicans who are exploring rules changes to make the chamber more efficient, such as preventing filibusters on motions simply to proceed to legislation. And two former majority leaders, Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., are releasing a book Tuesday that explores ways the two parties could work together to get past the current partisan atmosphere.
“You feel it. You see it. You hear it,” Lott said in a Jan. 15 phone interview from Charleston, S.C., where he had attended the previous night’s Republican presidential debate. “I worry about the ground we have lost,” Lott said, both in U.S. politics and “around the world.”
Despite their differences — “he’s a prairie liberal and I’m a Southern conservative,” Lott said — he and Daschle worked amicably for years as they swapped majority and minority leader titles and navigated the shoals of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton; the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and a unique power-sharing agreement after the 2000 elections resulted in a 50-50 tie.
The two former senators will kick off a tour for their book, “Crisis Point: Why We Must — and How We Can — Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America” Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the National Press Club.
Lott said changing some procedures, such as the ability to filibuster the motion to proceed to legislation, should be fair game.
“I used to argue to my colleagues in the Republican Conference, ‘Hey guys and gals, you don’t even want to debate this issue?” he said, adding that he would remind them they could still filibuster the legislation itself and vote against it.
He did acknowledge that the frequency of majority changes might cause some members to hesitate, when they think about what life would be like in the minority.
“That is one of the biggest issues. It does go back and forth,” he said, noting the daunting Senate map this year — Republicans are defending 24 seats, seven in states that President Barack Obama won twice, and Democrats only 10. “Keeping their majority will be tough,” he said, although the map is more favorable once again to the GOP in 2018.
Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress from 1954 to 1980, a remarkable stretch of stability for the legislative branch. Democrats controlled 59 Senate seats at the beginning of the 96th Congress in 1979, flirting with the magical 60-vote terrain that enables the majority to shut down filibusters. But the 1980 elections wiped that out, with Republicans in control of 53 seats to start the 97th Congress.
The GOP held the majority for six years, then lost eight seats in 1986. The majority President Ronald Reagan helped usher in with his 1980 victory disappeared in his second mid-term election test, and Democrats remained in charge another eight years.
In 1994, the Republicans captured the majority in both chambers in a landslide victory during Bill Clinton’s first mid-term election, gaining eight Senate seats on Election Day and two more shortly after with party switches.
The new millennium brought in an extraordinary bit of instability, with a special curve ball on Election Day 2000, when the chamber deadlocked 50-50. The majority would change three times in 2001.
After the new Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, Democrats controlled the chamber because Democrat Al Gore was vice president (and Senate president). Then the majority switched back to the GOP on Jan. 20 when Republican Dick Cheney was sworn in as vice president. Lott and Daschle’s power-sharing agreement gave Republicans control of the agenda, thanks to Cheney’s tie-breaking vote, but it split resources fairly evenly, including at the committee level.
That lasted until June 6, 2001, when Republican Jim Jeffords switched parties, giving the Democrats an outright majority. They lost that a year and a half later in the 2002 elections, when Republicans gained seats. The GOP lost the majority again in the 2006 Democratic sweep, and then regained it again in 2014.
In that time, there have been various threats to change the filibuster rules. In 2005, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., threatened the “nuclear option” — a maneuver would allow a simple majority to change the rules and confirm judicial nominees by a majority vote. Fourteen senators banded together to head it off that year, defusing the situation.
Then in 2013, Democrats under Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled the trigger on the nuclear option, allowing his conference to confirm President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees without the threat of a filibuster.
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Senate procedure, is skeptical that senators are hesitant to change the rules just because they’re thinking of the long-term health of the institution.
She believes senators, particularly those in the minority, tend to frame things around more immediate political concerns, including whether they can get anywhere close to changing the rules in the more traditional manner, requiring 67 votes. “It’s all politics,” she said.
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