Senate Democrats have what they think may be a unique window of opportunity to tame the filibuster power that the Republican minority has used so effectively in recent years to foil the Democratic agenda.
Normally, it takes a two-thirds majority to change Senate rules, one reason the filibuster system that has contributed to Senate paralysis hasn't been touched since 1975. But on the first day of a new session, a simple majority is enough to change rules and on Wednesday Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., plans to take advantage of that to alter the way the Senate operates.
It's uncertain that he will succeed. Republicans are adamantly opposed to ceding their minority rights and some Democrats as well, looking ahead a mere two years when there's a real chance they will be in the minority, want to make sure they'll still have the filibuster weapon in their legislative arsenal.
It now appears that Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid will resort to the unusual tactic of prolonging the first legislative day of the session until after the Senate returns from its Martin Luther King week recess, giving those involved in the issue more time to work on a compromise.
Udall's proposal already falls short of ending all filibusters. It would eliminate the practice of "secret holds" where a single senator can anonymously block a bill or nomination from reaching the floor and end the use of filibusters to prevent a bill from being taken up.
It would also require those waging a filibuster to stay on the floor and actually debate the bill, a la Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Udall would also guarantee the minority the right to offer a certain amount of amendments to bills.
The plan, Udall said in a statement, will "pull back the curtain on the endless obstruction and secret holds in the Senate that serve no other purpose than to score political points."
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., another relatively new member of the Senate disaffected by the partisan gamesmanship, has a similar plan to curtail holds and filibusters. Bennet, like Senate veteran Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a longtime proponent of filibuster reform, would also reduce the number of senators needed to end debate as the filibuster drags on.
It now takes 60 votes to overcome opposition to advancing a bill to the floor or cutting off debate and bringing it to a final vote. That gives a minority with at least 41 united members near veto power over legislation and makes the Senate a far different body from the House, where simple majorities rule and the majority party can usually get its way.
Senate records show that the chamber took 91 votes in the two-year session that just ended to stop filibusters. That compares to 54 in the 2005-2006 period when Republicans were in control and two during the eight years that Dwight Eisenhower was president in the 1950s when the two parties traded control.
Once a procedure used mainly to stop civil rights legislation, it's "now used regularly to block debate on any issue under the sun," said Bob Edgar, president of the good government group Common Cause. He said it was the opinion of his organization that the filibuster was "unconstitutional and un-American. It's really destroying our democratic tradition."
Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, said a consequence of GOP obstruction of President Barack Obama's judicial system nominees is that one out of every nine seats for federal judges is now vacant.
But Republicans argue that they are only defending themselves against Democratic tactics of limiting amendments and debate time on bills.
"The demise of the Senate is not because Republicans seek to filibuster," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in prepared remarks to the Heritage Foundation Tuesday. "The real obstructionists have been the Democratic majority which, for an unprecedented number of times, used their majority advantage to limit debate, not to allow amendments and to bypass the normal committee consideration of legislation."
Republicans on Tuesday also came out with a long list of past statements from Democrats, including from then-Sen. Obama, then-Sen. Joe Biden and Reid, defending the Senate tradition of filibusters. Many were from 2005 when Democrats vociferously objected to a proposal by then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to eliminate the use of filibusters on judicial nominees.
Back then, a bipartisan group of senators came together to work out a compromise on moving nominees more quickly. It remains to be seen if there's the will to find common ground on the issue again.