Earlier this year, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) delivered an address about conservative obstruction at the Center for American Progress Action Fund titled “Deliberation, Obstruction or Dysfunction? Evaluating the Modern U.S. Senate and its Contribution to American Governance.” At the event, Udall discussed what he called the “Constitutional Option,” which he described as the Senate having the ability to alter its rules with a simple majority vote at the beginning of each Congress. Indeed, with record use of the filibuster in the current Senate, an overhaul of the procedure is needed to prevent further obstruction. Udall reiterated his desire to reform the filibuster in an interview late last month with Tikkun.
Now, another senator has embraced the use of the “Constitutional Option” to reform the filibuster at the start of the new Senate. This week on The Big Picture With Thom Hartmann, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) laid out a path to fundamentally change the way the filibuster works. Merkeley told Hartmann to “mark this date on your calendar: January 5th. That’s the date we’re going to come in for the next Congress, and it’s on that date that a group of us is trying to pass a motion for the Senate to adopt new rules.”
Merkley then went on to explain his proposal for the new filibuster rules. The senator explained that by assembling 51 votes at the start of the new Senate, he wants to change the chamber’s rules so that when a senator engages in a filibuster, they have to go to the floor of the Senate, “defend your position, hold the floor, and if you’re not there, the Senate goes forth and holds a majority vote.” In other words, Merkley is proposing that if senators want to filibuster bills, they actually have to show up and physically spend time on the floor of the Senate to stop bills from going forth. “Hopefully we can bring together that magic 51 to say let’s make it function, the Senate function, to be that deliberative body that it once was,” he concluded:
HARTMANN: My read of the Constitution is that every two years when a new Congress is installed that each body establishes the rules under which it will operate, and it goes by majority vote. So why are the Senate rules, why are they so disfunctional? And why hasn’t anybody stepped forward to change them?
MERKLEY: Mark this date on your calendar. January 5th. That’s the date we’re going to come in for the next Congress, and it’s on that date that a group of us is trying to pass a motion for the Senate to adopt new rules. And I want to mention Tom Udall has been very instrumental in that effort. We have to get 51 votes on that day in order to open that door. And we need 51 in order to get a new set of rules or modifications. And the type of conversation we’re having right now is to say let’s make the filibuster work the way all of America thinks it works. The American people believe that you have to go defend your position, hold the floor, and if you’re not there, the Senate goes forth and holds a majority vote. And so that is the model we’re trying to create. We’ve laid out a series of ideas, we’re holding a caucus discussion on them, and hopefully we can bring together that magic 51 to say let’s make it function, the Senate function, to be that deliberative legislative body that it once was.
Merkley mapped out his plans in further detail in a memo released two weeks ago. Merkeley writes that he would “require a specific number of Senators — I suggest five for the first 24 hours, 10 for the second 24 hours, and 20 thereafter — to be on the floor to sustain the filibuster. This would be required even during quorum calls. At any point, a member could call for a count of the senators on the floor who stand in opposition to the regular order, and if the count falls below the required level, the regular order prevails and a majority vote is held.”
Merkley and Udall aren’t the only senators wanting to fix the broken filibuster. On Thursday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) called for ending the practice altogether. “Let’s work together to get rid of the filibuster once in for all!” he said. Their sentiments are in line with 50 percent of Americans, who said in a February 2010 CBS/New York Times poll that the filibuster should be changed (44 percent were opposed).