Gillibrand on the not-so-nuclear filibuster proposal in the Senate

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Gillibrand on the Senate floor. ()
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Kirsten Gillibrand, who was elevated to the U.S. Senate three years ago, would like to return the upper chamber to a more collegial time, before she arrived.

"It's important that the Senate is the deliberative body and we should not change that issue," Gillibrand said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon. "But it has to be something that restores the ability of people to come together and get things done, and the abuse of the filibuster has made things impossible."

Gillibrand is one of a handful of Democrats who are aggressively pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to alter the Senate rules and restrict the minority party's ability to block bills and appointments simply by declaring an intention to filibuster, which then requires 60 votes to overcome.

The would-be reformers point to statistics that show that the filibuster has been used much more in recent years than at any previous point in the Senate's history, stalling legislation that would otherwise be passed by a simple majority of members, and blocking presidential nominees at a much higher rate than has ever been accomplished in the past.

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The proposed changes would keep the minority from pre-emptively blocking bills by filibustering the initial Motion to Proceed, restrict which presidential appointments could be filibustered, and require senators who want to delay legislation to engage in a talking filibuster on the Senate floor.

"That's our 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' amendment, which basically would require you to stand up and argue your case on the Senate floor, just like Mr. Smith did in the movie," Gillibrand said. 

Republicans have argued that the procedural changes would "destroy the Senate" and forever ruin the institution, a claim Gillibrand rejects as "political rhetoric."

Some liberal observers have argued the opposite, that the changes don't go far enough, since Republicans have already indicated a willingness to publicly oppose the president's agenda. 

"I think it would be rare," Gillibrand predicted. "Because to take the effort to stand up and debate something with the American people listening and do it for as long as you need to or want to, that's going to be something that I think senators will rarely choose to do. And so the political posturing that's done purely to delay the work of the Senate will end."

But there is an underlying question about how to reform the rules in the first place, and whether a change in the filibuster rules—which are set by the Senate itself, not by the Constitution—can be accomplished with a simple majority, a precedent that opponents call a "nuclear option."

"I think it's an appropriate way to proceed," said Gillibrand. "The House of Representatives can do a rule change—the majority party does their rule changes before the Congress starts. This is a vote, a majority vote should be enough."

But that's exactly what concerns defenders of the filibuster, who argue that the Senate is designed to be more insulated from the vicissitudes of the masses, and that changing the Senate rules by a simple majority would start down a slippery slope that can only end at the total abolishment of the filibuster.

Gillibrand said the proposed changes aren't "necessarily taking cues from the House," where she served for a few years before being appointed to the Senate, though she added that she does support broader reforms that would reduce the need for 60 votes.

"There are more aggressive reforms that I do support," she said. "For example, there was a bill that I liked, that basically said on your first vote for a filibuster you would need 60 votes, but the second 55 and the third 51. I support that.

"I also support just reducing the vote requirement to 51. I think a majority should be enough to do the business of the Senate."

Democrats have yet to secure even the 51 votes to change the rules under the "nuclear option," with some senior Democrats expressing misgivings about the precedent of making a rules change with a simple majority. I asked Gillibrand if she felt there was a generational divide, even in her own party.

"There are senators who are very senior who also support filibuster reform, for example Senator Harkin who is one of the authors of one of the bills I described, so it's not necessarily generational-based," she said.

"But I do believe that more often some of the newcomers are eager to answer the call of the American people. People look to Washington and they know it's broken, and so they want people who will reform it, they want transparency, they want accountability, they want reform. And changing these rules would be a good first step in that direction."

Reid has been criticized for changing his view on the filibuster, from the time he served as minority leader, but Gillibrand insisted for her it was about process.

"All of these recommendations that I support, I would support even if we were in the minority," she said.