Recalling Jimmy Stewart

Posted Jan. 09, 2011, at 5:24 p.m.

Again and again, the senators who spent all afternoon Wednesday arguing about the filibuster rule harked back to the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” starring Jimmy Stewart. They recalled how the young, newly appointed senator, fighting for a seemingly lost cause, held the floor and spoke for 23 hours, finally collapsed, but inspired the Senate and the country and carried the day.

In their vigorous but generally collegial colloquy, Republicans and Democrats alike showed regret that abuse of Senate rules had led to gridlock that would inevitably become worse.

At issue was a procedural rule dating back to 1806 that permits unlimited debate unless two-thirds (later reduced to three-fifths) of sitting senators invoke cloture. Filibusters used to last for many hours, as in the resistance to the civil rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s.

The era of Jimmy Stewart and those extended debates is long gone. The “silent filibuster” and the “secret hold” have taken its place. As Jeff Murkley, an Oregon Democrat, explained, a senator who objects to a bill or nomination can simply telephone his “hold” and go out to dinner. No one will know who halted debate, and no one will be accountable.

The filibuster has exploded from only a few each session until the 1980s to as many as 275 in the past four years. While some major legislation has been enacted, many other bills, even when supported by both parties, have been silently blocked. Chief Justice John Roberts called on the president and the Senate this month to solve “the persistent problem of judicial vacancies” — now stuck at 96 in the federal courts.

A determined group of Democrats led by Tom Harkin of Iowa and Tom Udall of New Mexico argued for an end to silent holds, a return to voiced filibusters, and an assurance of amendment, debate and voting on bills and nominations. They did not call for a change in the 60-vote cloture requirement. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, joined in opposing the secret holds.

Another Republican, Susan Collins, also focused on secret holds while opposing any limitation on debate. She joined in introducing a resolution that would require a senator placing a hold to go public within one day and thus become accountable.

In the end, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to set up a bipartisan group, including Sen. Collins, to hasten the confirmation of presidential nominees. Talks will resume Jan. 25.

The reformers have a powerful lever in reserve in a constitutional provision that would let them demand a simple majority vote on the Senate procedures. At least a modest improvement is in sight.

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