BOSTON U.S. Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren is vowing to join with other Democrats to limit the use of the filibuster – a move she said will help break gridlock in Washington by curbing the ability of Republicans to block votes.
In what would be one of her first official acts after taking office in January, Warren said she’ll vote to require Senators who want to filibuster to stand on the Senate floor and speak continuously instead of merely threatening to do so.
Minority parties in the Senate use filibusters to slow or kill legislation. They can only be ended by 60 votes. Democrats will command a 55-45 majority in the chamber in the new session.
Warren said without the changes, Republicans frustrate the work she says she was sent to Washington to accomplish – from pushing for equal pay for women to advocating for students and seniors.
In a recent email to supporters, Warren invoked the 1939 melodrama “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In the movie, actor Jimmy Stewart delivers the classic Hollywood interpretation of the filibuster, speaking on Senate floor until his voice grows raspy and he collapses from exhaustion.
While the threat of filibusters has increased in recent years, the marathon speachifying has largely disappeared.
“If someone objects to a bill or a nomination in the United States Senate, they should have to stand on the floor of the chamber and defend their opposition,” Warren said in an email to supporters. “No more ducking responsibility for bringing the work of this country to a dead stop.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said on the first day of the new Congress, he may take the unusual step of using a simple majority vote to limit filibusters instead of the two-thirds vote typically needed to change Senate rules.
That means Democrats could change the rules without GOP support. That’s raised the ire of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans who say they filibuster legislation because Reid blocks them from offering amendments.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner has threatened to ignore bills the Senate sends him if Democrats limit the use of the filibuster. Boehner says Reid is trying “to marginalize Senate Republicans and their constituents while greasing the skids for controversial, partisan measures.”
Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, say Republicans have employed an unprecedented number of filibusters solely to block President Barack Obama’s agenda. Kerry said filibusters should be used sparingly, as he did to stop drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.
Kerry said he supports changes to the rules including requiring filibustering Senators to speak continuously.
“You can’t just phone it in,” Kerry said in a posting on the liberal Blue Mass Group website. “If it’s that important to you, make a filibuster mean something.”
The threat of the filibuster proved critical during the 2010 special election that propelled Republican Scott Brown into the Senate to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Democrat Edward Kennedy.
During the election, Brown pledged to be “the 41st senator that could stop the Obama proposal that’s being pushed right now through the Congress,” referring to the federal health care law, which passed despite his opposition.
But Brown also has broken with fellow Republicans on the use of the filibuster. In January he said he supported Obama’s decision to name Richard Cordray as the nation’s chief consumer watchdog during a congressional recess, denying Republicans the chance to block Cordray.
Brown said that while he would have preferred the appointment go through the normal confirmation process, the political system was “completely broken” in Washington.
Warren, who defeated Brown in November, said one lesson she learned from the campaign was that voters are frustrated with the inability of Congress to deal with big issues.
“Voters want political leaders who are willing to break the partisan gridlock,” Warren said. “They want fewer closed-door roadblocks and more public votes on legislation that could improve their lives.”
While senators in the majority often complain about the minority’s excessive use of filibusters, they’re usually cautious about limiting the procedure because they know their own party can fall back into the minority.
The use of the filibuster has increased dramatically in recent years.
According to the Senate Historian’s Office, there were 68 “cloture petitions” – a procedural step that sets up a vote to end a filibuster – in the two-year session of Congress running from 2005 to 2006, the last time Democrats were in the minority.
That number has exceeded 100 for each of the past three two-year sessions with Republicans in the minority.