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Filibuster Reform LIVE: Congress Seeks to End the Use of This Political WMD

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Dianne Feinstein: Doesn't Want Huge Filibuster Reform Because it Will Hurt Dems Later

Republicans, the minority party in the Senate, have sought to end hopes of significant filibuster reform, especially one plan that would make the act more public ... and thus more damning for the one filibusting, especially if the act is done for pety reasons.

Late in December, a group of senators had put forward a plan on Thursday for much milder filibuster reforms that would leave the current rules in place. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been reluctant to change the filibuster rules on a party-line vote because of concerns about what will happen when Democrats are once again in the minority said this last week:

"I think there are some changes that can be made on a bipartisan basis," Feinstein said. "I think that's where things are going right now, to see what we can agree upon. If we can't, then the so-called nuclear option comes into play. I'm hopeful that that is not the case, because what comes around goes around."

Senators from both sides have expressed support for an alternative theory, dubbed the “nuclear option” due to its potentially explosive impact on Senate politics (it’s also referred to as the “constitutional option” by those seeking to keep the rhetoric a bit softer).

The nuclear option outlines that because the Constitution is silent on the numerical requirement for changing Senate rules, a 51 vote majority must be sufficient. Employing the nuclear option would allow 51 senators to go in and change the Senate rules to their choosing. They could eliminate the filibuster or reform it as they pleased, with the minority powerless to stop them.

Whether the nuclear option is exercised at the start of the 113th Congress will depend on a number of back room negotiations sure to take place over the coming weeks. If it happens, it will most likely happen early on Thursday afternoon, as the rules are reviewed. For now, let’s assume that the nuclear option is exercised, giving the majority room to reform the filibuster however they choose. 

Pressed on whether she'd support a 51-vote approach -- what opponents call the nuclear option and advocates call the constitutional option -- if the bipartisan deal fell apart, she wouldn't rule it out.

"At this stage, I don't believe it's necessary," Feinstein said, emphasizing at this stage. "I believe we can work something out that both parties can accept."

Filibuster Reform LIVE: Congress Seeks to End the Use of This Political WMD

With the swearing-in of the new 113th Congress on Thursday, the unsexy issue of Senate rule reform — and as a result, filibuster reform — is among the first big issue items on the docket.

Filibusters have become a sort of political WMD — a crushing weapon that can easily derail any piece of legislation in the Senate. The filibuster, where a senator talks unimpeded at length, allowing a lone member to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a given proposal, can only be overcome by a vote of 60 senators. Filibusters are otherwise fatal to a bill, especially since a single bill can be filibustered multiple times.

The filibuster, aka Senate Rule 22, has been a mainstay in the Senate since 1806 when the Senate agreed with a proposal made by Aaron Burr in 1789 that the motion to “move the previous question” was redundant and struck the motion. It wasn’t until 31 years later, 1837, that the filibuster was used for the first time. It took another 80 years, 1917 for the Senate to create the rule of cloture, a two-thirds vote to end debate. (changed in 1975 to three-fifths).

The use of the filibuster as a tool of obstruction has skyrocketed in recent years. The 110th Congress (2007-2008) experienced a record 139 motions to invoke cloture. This trend continued in the 111th Congress, with the filing of 137 motions to invoke cloture. In comparison, only 20 cloture motions were filed between 1950 and 1969.

From 1917 – 1970 there were a total of 59 cloture motions filed, just over one per year. Cloture was invoked on eight. From 1971 – 2012 there have been 1,319 cloture motions filed or 32 per year. Cloture has been invoked on 426 of those motions. Approximately 40% of these cloture votes have been on motions to proceed. If we look at the 118 cloture motions filled during the 112th Congress, 31 or 26% have been on motions to proceed, Cloture was invoked on 15.

Imagine filibusters to be like massive military weapons — we don’t want people using them because of the damage they cause. The damage, in the Senate’s case, is unrelenting congressional gridlock, and an unproductive Congress.

For a complete run-down of what the heck a filibuster even is, see pundit Mark Kogan's analysis here