Senate Rules Reform ? the Weekly Recap, March 15, 2013

Washington DC – Senate rules reform remained a hot topic this week, spurred by continued attention to the rare sight of Senator Rand Paul’s “talking filibuster” and a gathering array of voices calling on Democrats to re-open Senate rules reform in light of continued Republican threats of filibuster on other nominees.

On Wednesday, President Obama reportedly urged Senate Democrats during a closed-lunch meeting to address the issue of Senate Republicans repeatedly blocking his judicial nominations – after the recent ‘silent filibuster’ of DC Court of Appeals nominee Caitlin Halligan. Later, a Senate Democratic aide confirmed that Senate Democratic leaders were currently engaged in “preliminary discussions” to propose ways to counter filibusters against judicial nominees, as well as other recent forms of obstruction. On Thursday, President Obama called on Senate Republicans to ease up on blocking his judicial and executive nominations.

 Coverage & Analysis

  • President Obama to Senate Republicans, as reported by Huffington Post: “President Barack Obama made a plea to Republican senators in their private meeting Thursday to ease up on their filibusters of his nominees, but he appears to have gotten a cool reception … But it seems that Republicans will not relent on bogging down nominees, and also do not agree they are obstructing Obama's picks.”
  • Senior Democratic aide confirmed the White House’s recent engagement on rules reform to Huffington Post: “Two Senate Democratic sources also told HuffPost that in a meeting with Democratic senators Tuesday, Obama complained about the slow pace of nominations and suggested that the rules be changed.”
  • Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker: “On the same day as Rand Paul’s celebrated filibuster against drone strikes last week, the Senate engaged in a less noticed but more typical form of delay and obstruction. A majority of the Senate voted to bring up the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, but forty-one Republican Senators voted to prevent her from receiving consideration. This is the modern version of the filibuster, far more common than Paul’s thirteen-hour speech. Without sixty votes, it’s now virtually impossible to accomplish anything in the contemporary United States Senate … What, if anything, can Obama do? Given the rules of the Senate, probably not much … For example, eighteen district court nominees, all uncontroversial, are currently awaiting votes on the floor. All will be confirmed eventually, but Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, parcels out agreements to take votes just one or two judges at a time. ‘We are not hearing any opposition to the district court nominees,’ [White House counsel Kathryn] Ruemmler said. ‘The process is just too slow.’”
  • Matt Viser, Boston Globe: “While the Senate’s slowness in approving judges nationwide has been noted, the practical and political impact on the courts of that holdup has received far less attention … It’s the result of a decline in decorum among senators, the willingness of the Republican minority to use tactics that were previously off-limits, and an overall rise in partisanship. The result is that Washington gridlock is resulting in docket gridlock across the country, with courts not getting the judges they need as a result of dysfunction in the Senate.”
  • Ezra Klein, Washington Post: “When Senate institutionalists wax rhapsodic about the upper chamber, they talk about the filibuster’s cherished role in slowing down the majority and permitting passionate minorities to be heard. That is a valuable endeavor! It’s just not at all what the filibuster typically does. It permits passive minorities to win arguments without ever having to speak. It creates a 60-vote supermajority requirement for anything and everything.”
  • Carl Hulse, New York Times: “Given the attention Mr. Paul received, the filibuster may even be enjoying resurgence as grand theater … The fight will take time. Democrats say they want to see how Republicans respond to future appeals court nominees, including another one to the District of Columbia circuit, Srikanth Srinivasan, Mr. Obama’s deputy solicitor general. But a series of filibusters against what they view as acceptable nominees could again bring to a head the push for a change in Senate rules.”

 Quotes of the Week

  • Senior Democratic aide, as reported by Talking Points Memo: “The general agreement was that Republicans would only filibuster nominees in the case of extraordinary circumstances, and once again Republicans are expanding the definition of that term to make it entirely meaningless.”
  • Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), USA Today interview: "There's a lot of respect for somebody who didn't just phone in a hold or an objection ... and some of the [filibuster] reforms that were proposed demanded that there be a talking filibuster."

    • Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), New York Times interview: “We need to design a strategy to counter the Republicans, and we are going to need the president. Rather than putting just one up, we should put before the Senate all four and expose what is happening here.”
    • Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Roll Call: “Of course, the filibuster is not about Halligan’s position on guns. It is about a clear effort to use delaying tactics to keep as many vacancies as possible on the federal courts in case the 2016 elections produce a Republican president.”
    • Joan McCarter, Daily Kos: “The "facts" apparently don't encompass the unprecedented filibuster of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, or the other filibuster of John Brennan at the CIA, or the months long filibuster of any warm body the president might nominate to the CFPB, currently Richard Cordray. Or the 30 filibusters of Obama's judicial nominees in the past four years, five of which ended up permanently blocking nominees … Appeals from President Obama are the last thing that could possibly work with these guys. The only thing that will is Harry Reid going nuclear and changing Senate rules mid-session.”

    Stat of the Week

    • “There are currently 87 vacant seats out of 874 seats on the federal bench, continuing one of the longest periods of high vacancy rates in recent history. About a third of the vacancies are considered by the court system’s administrative agency to be ‘judicial emergencies’ either because of how long they’ve been left open or because the affected courthouses are so busy.”

    -          Matt Viser, Boston Globe

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