Editorial: Make filibusters rare again

The Capitol in Washington. The Capitol in Washington. Photo Credit: AP, 2011

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The public is sick of crisis and gridlock in Washington.

Fed up with rhetorical warfare that produces no solutions to the nation's problems, Americans want elected officials to do their jobs. That's little enough to ask, and there are signs that Congress is beginning to get it.

One is the vote in the House of Representatives expected Wednesday to postpone the next debt-ceiling Armageddon from February to May. The House should provide that breathing room and the Senate should use it to pass a budget. Another is the negotiation in the Senate this week in search of a deal to restrict the filibuster.

That time-honored tactic allows a minority of senators to block action by the majority because it takes 60 of 100 senators to end the delay and force a vote. It has been employed over the years by both Republicans and Democrats.

But in recent years, it's been used so often to block votes on bills and presidential nominations that the Senate has been all but paralyzed. That has to change, and there's a narrow window to see that it does.

On the first day of a new Congress -- which will be extended to the end of the week by recessing rather than adjourning each day -- a simple majority of 51 senators can change the rules for filibusters. After that it would take 67 votes. Senate leaders negotiating a deal in that chamber with 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and 2 independents, would prefer bipartisan, supermajority approval, but either way, change is essential.

The filibuster should be returned to its historic roots by requiring senators to actually hold the floor and talk continuously to prevent a vote. Today a filibuster is assumed to be ongoing until 60 senators vote to end it.

At the very least, the Senate should bar filibustering to block debate on a bill, or to prevent sending a bill to a conference committee to resolve differences with the House. Senators should also be barred from filibustering to block a vote to confirm a presidential appointee, except those nominated for lifetime jobs as judges.

Historically filibusters were rare. They should be again. Congress needs fewer obstacles to getting things done.

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