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Would Filibustering Work?

Lots of frustrated people who aren’t US Senators are calling on the Senate Democrats to force the Republicans to engage in some annoying “real” filibusters if they’re going to insist on blocking all legislation. But would that work? Karen Tumulty from Time decided to consult some experts:

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution calls this idea impractical. Given the fact that Republicans could muster 41 people on most things to hold the floor, a real filibuster could go on interminably….But Norm Ornstein at the American Enterprise Insitute thinks Reid should call the Republicans’ bluff, starting with holding the Senate in session five long days a week. “You have a different Senate now. Frankly, they’re soft,” says Ornstein. “If they had the backbone and the discipline to do it, it would work.”

Kevin Drum remarks that “if Mann and Ornstein disagree, then yes, this question is more complicated than we think.”

I sort of disagree. There’s an ambiguous sense of “work” here. Obviously, in a literal sense it’s not in Harry Reid’s power to prevent the GOP from behaving in a highly unified manner with at least 41 Senators sticking together on all issues. No amount of theater can, through magic, “work” to break down the bonds of solidarity. But there’s going to be an election in 2008. If Democrats can drum home the message “obstructionist Republican Senators block all good things under the sun” that will tend to cause the Republicans to lose seats, which might change things. Conversely, if Republicans can drive home the message “ineffectual Democratic congress can’t accomplish anything” they might be able to skate away. The current strategy definitely is driving home the second narrative, and timely political theater — if done not once, but over and over and over and over again in the manner of something calculated to drive home a “message” — could help switch the storyline.

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That said, there’s clearly a simple answer to this. Back during the “nuclear option” debate, the Republicans rolled out a method of eliminating the possibility of filibustering judicial nominees. At that time, Democrats should have raised the ante and said they would agree if we could just end all filibusters on everything. Having missed that opportunity then, Democrats would look like huge hypocrites if they did it now, but it’s still the right thing to do: the filibuster’s always been a bad rule and eliminating it would eliminate decades of further conversations like this about legislative gamesmanship.