Editorial: U.S. Senate should fix the filibuster

From left, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), From left, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) address reporters. (Nov. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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The filibuster is a weapon of mass obstruction that should be defused.

After two years of partisan gridlock and public exasperation with a do-little Congress, the U.S. Senate should modify its rules that allow a minority of senators to block action by the majority.

There will be a tiny window of opportunity when the new Congress convenes in January. On its first day, a simple majority, 51 of 100 senators, can change the rules. After that it would take 67 votes, making reform all but impossible. The filibuster is a time-honored, foot-dragging tactic that both Republicans and Democrats have used to block debate or a vote. It can serve the useful purpose of preventing total domination by a majority party. But its use has become so routine in the Senate these days that it takes 60 votes -- the number needed to end a filibuster -- to get anything done.

A Democratic minority filibustered repeatedly to block confirmation of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. A Republican minority set out in 2010 to filibuster every item on President Barack Obama's agenda. In the 1950s the Senate averaged about one filibuster every two years. In the two years of the current Congress, there have been 110.

The filibuster has been modified over the years, and it shouldn't be elimintated entirely. But it needs another fix. Right now a single senator can simply signal he or she is unwilling to stop debating an issue. That triggers a virtual reality filibuster that is assumed to be ongoing until 60 senators vote to end it.

The Senate should return the filibuster to its historic roots by requiring senators to actually hold the floor and talk continuously to prevent a vote. That drama allows the nation to focus on it, and the Senate's action will rise or fall based on public reaction. Senators should no longer be allowed to filibuster to block confirmation of a president's executive branch appointees. It should remain, however, for judicial nominations, since those appointments are for life.

The filibuster has drifted far from its original intent. Rather than preventing domination by the majority, it now allows domination by an obstructionist minority.

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