Senate Rules Reform ? the Weekly Recap

Washington DC – The issue of filibuster reform re-emerged into the spotlight this week, in large part because of two contrasting filibusters deployed on Wednesday.

In protesting the nominee for CIA Director, John Brennan, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) turned heads by engaging in an old-fashioned “talking filibuster,” speaking for approximately 13 hours. If the Senate had adopted more substantial reforms in January, Senator Paul’s version of accountable obstruction would be the norm, not the outlier. Meanwhile, also on Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Instead of being forced to hold the floor and debate, Republicans were able to block Halligan without much effort or scrutiny.

On the heels of other obstructionist firsts this Congress – such as the first-ever filibuster of a Secretary of Defense last month – the Halligan filibuster is the latest evidence that Senate is mired in gridlock and that the compromise over Senate rules reform missed the chance to raise the costs of obstruction. In light of the continued obstruction in the Senate, a number of Senators and outside observers raising the possibility of re-opening Senate rules and filibuster reform.

Quotes of the Week

  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV): “We should all reflect on what happened yesterday as we proceed with other nominations, including a number of judicial nominations. This can be a Senate were ideas are debated in full public view – and obstruction happens in full public view as well. Or it can be a Senate where a small minority obstructs from behind closed doors, without ever coming to the Senate floor.”
  • Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL): “We have tried at the beginning of this Senate session to avoid this kind of filibuster confrontation. The last several years we have had over 400 filibusters — a record number of filibusters in the Senate … I hate to suggest this, but if this is an indication of where we’re headed, we need to revisit the rules again.”
  • Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR): “I certainly share Senator Durbin’s statement that if this is going to be the Republican behavior, we’re going to have to review the agreement that was struck so recently … Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, folks will soon be concluding that there’s no intention to honor the spirit of the agreement. … We as senators have a responsibility to the American people to have this chamber function.”

Coverage & Analysis

  • Carl Hulse, New York Times: “those changes have done little so far this session to curb filibusters, as evidenced by the vote on Ms. Halligan and the politically charged obstacles raised to confirmation votes on Mr. Brennan and Chuck Hagel  … The filibuster is alive and well in the Senate and, as Mr. Paul showed, may even be enjoying resurgence as grand theater … But a series of filibusters against what they [Democrats] view as acceptable nominees could quickly bring to a head the push for a change in Senate rules.
  • Ezra Klein, Washington Post: “But this is why I occasionally think filibuster reform will happen in the not-too-distant future. The idea’s on the table now. And it returns every time the majority feels the minority is abusing the spirit of the last compromise. Which is pretty much all the time.”
  • Dave Weigel, Slate: “‘If a person’s going to make a stand on a nomination, this is the way to do it—the way Sen. Paul is doing it,’ [Senator Jeff] Merkley said. ‘The American people can watch this and weigh in on whether he’s a hero or a bum. That’s reasonable. That honors the traditions of the Senate.’ Merkley contrasted that with the filibuster that happened right before Paul’s speech, one that got perfunctory media attention. For the third time, Democrats tried to advance the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. For the third time she got a majority of ‘aye’ votes but couldn’t break the 60-vote cloture threshold.”
  • Matthew Menendez, Counsel at Brennan Center: "Ironically, at the same time that Sen. Paul was debating the limits of executive power, he and his colleagues were silently filibustering Caitlin Halligan’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This court has had four vacant judgeships since 2005, and President Obama’s nominees have languished in Senate confirmation purgatory for years. The disconnect is glaring: Using a talking filibuster to demand answers about the limits of executive national security power while at the same time silently disabling the judicial branch, which is central to enforcing constitutional limits on executive authority."

Fix the Senate Now Coalition Voices

  • Nan Aron, President of Alliance for Justice: “the recent agreement to ‘reform’ Senate rules really was no agreement at all, but rather a blank check for continued obstruction.  We believe the Senate majority needs to reconsider the terms of this agreement, and revisit serious rules reform.”
  • Bob Edgar, President of Common Cause: “We saw this morning another glaring example of anti-democratic rule by a minority in the United States Senate … A bipartisan majority supported this nomination, but a minority barred them from approving her with another filibuster.”
  • George Kohl, Senior Director for Policy and Legislation at the Communications Workers of America (CWA): "The Halligan filibuster not only destroys the intent of the rules reform compromise agreement for this Congress, but also blows up the Gang of 14 agreement from 2005 that was supposed to limit the obstruction of qualified judicial nominees…This is just the latest reminder that, instead of Senate compromises that perpetuate Senate gridlock, we need actual and substantial rules reform in the U.S. Senate."

Stat of the Week

“From 1947 to 1960 -- 7 Congresses, spanning 14 years -- the Senate held four cloture votes. This Congress has only existed for a couple of months, and it's already held five cloture votes. It's only going to get worse.”


For more information, or to schedule an interview with Fix the Senate Now leaders, contact Michael Earls at 202-261-2388,