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Busting The Filibuster: Setting New Terms

Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico tells host Guy Raz that next month might be the perfect time for Democrats to try a controversial technique to reform the filibuster.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Let's turn to politics now, and this is what might come to mind when you hear the word filibuster.

H.V. KALTENBORN: (as Himself) This is H.V. Kaltenborn speaking. Half of official Washington is here to see democracy's finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off.

RAZ: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the scene where Jimmy Stewart in the title role had a few things to say on the Senate floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

JAMES STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) And as a matter of fact, I'm not going to leave this body until I do get them said.

CLAUDE RAINS: (as Senator Joseph Harrison Paine) Mr. President, will the senator yield?

HARRY CAREY: (as Henry) Will the senator yield?

STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) No, sir, I'm afraid not.

SENATOR TOM UDALL: Everybody understands and knows that movie where he stood up and passionately argued his issue on the Senate floor.

RAZ: That's New Mexico's Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat. He's a fan of the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) And I find that if I yield only for a question or a point of order or a personal privilege that I can hold this floor almost until doomsday.

RAZ: But Tom Udall is not a fan of the filibuster, at least in its current form.

UDALL: That's the way it used to be - coming to the floor of the Senate, planting your feet there, getting up in front of your desk and telling people why you don't want to consider the piece of legislation and why you're filibustering.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

RAINS: (as Senator Joseph Harrison Paine) Will the senator yield?

STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) No, sir. I will not yield.

UDALL: No longer does that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) And this same man, Mr. James Taylor...

RAZ: Over the years, the rules have changed. Senators no longer have to park their fanny on the floor, as Senator Dick Durbin recently put it, to delay a bill indefinitely. But a group of Democrats in the Senate led by Tom Udall are lobbying Majority Leader Harry Reid to change that by changing the rules of the Senate on the first day of the new term next month.

That's the day the Senate is required to set down its rules for the term. It's usually a formality, but some Democrats want to use the power they'll have on that one day to change the rules dramatically. And their proposal? To limit the filibuster by changing the rules to require a simple majority rather than 60 votes to overcome one. It's a controversial technique that critics call the nuclear option because, normally, big legislative changes aren't made that way. Here's Senator Udall.

UDALL: The Constitution specifically says that the Senate can adopt the rules of its proceedings. Three vice presidents sitting in the chair presiding over the Senate have ruled that at the beginning of a Congress by majority vote, you can adopt the rules. So let's just compare two majority leaders. LBJ was majority leader for six years. He faced one filibuster in that six-year period. Harry Reid has faced in his six years as majority leader 386, and the number's going up every day.

RAZ: But what's to say that if Democrats become the minority in the Senate, they wouldn't do precisely the same thing?

UDALL: Well, what I'm hoping we do is we put a set of commonsense rule changes in place that we can live with in the minority. I'm not trying to run roughshod over the minority. What we're really trying to do is say let's get the Senate to be addressing the business of the American people. And the most interesting thing about it is if you visit privately with Republican senators, they're going to tell you that this is a broken place. They're going to tell you they don't like the way the rules have been used, that they believe the rules have been abused. But they're not quite clear as to what they want to do now. But we have a month to deal with this, and we may well come together with some rules changes that have bipartisan support.

RAZ: One final question for you. So in theory, I mean, if this passed and, say, Republicans gain the majority of the Senate in two years' time, I mean, you would be in a position where the Republicans could pass legislation with simple majorities.

UDALL: Oh, sure. At the beginning of a session. And the rules that we're proposing here and that we're going to adopt, we can live with. For example, you can get onto a bill without a filibuster. You can get into the conference committee without a filibuster. And you have to stand and talk rather than be silent in terms of the filibuster. So those, I think, are common sense. We can live with them when we're in the minority. They're something that I think would help us address these big, big issues that the American people want us to be working on.

RAZ: That's Senator Tom Udall, Democrat from New Mexico. Senator, thank you so much for your time.

UDALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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