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Filibuster may be the real victim in Hagel drama

February 26, 2013 by NCC Staff


Chuck Hagel cleared a cloture vote by a wide margin on Tuesday, but the real winners in the battle over the defense secretary nominee could be the supporters of filibuster reform.

Jimmy Stewart's old-school filibuster.

The Senate voted 71-27 to end the “silent filibuster” over Hagel’s appointment that blocked him from getting a confirmation vote. He will most likely be confirmed by a majority vote of the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Twelve days ago, Republican led a historic filibuster to block Hagel’s nomination from moving to the Senate floor for a vote. The move was unprecedented for a high-level cabinet nominee and came just little more than a month after Democrats and Republicans reached a modest deal on filibuster reform.

Hagel, a former Republican senator, had opponents within his own party before the nomination, and he struggled at his nomination hearing. Some GOP members had also tried to link Hagel’s successful nomination to requests for more information about the Benghazi attacks.

Among the senators who changed their votes on Hagel were John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

McCain and Democrat Carl Levin helped craft the filibuster compromise in January, but found themselves at the center of the nasty battle over the Hagel filibuster.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized his Senate opponents for dragging out the Hagel nomination by breaching one of the Senate’s unwritten rules about filibustering: hands off the top nominees from a sitting president.

Related Story: Your one-stop primer on the Senate filibuster

Under the current Senate rules, a cloture vote is needed after some members signaled their intent to filibuster a procedure. At least 60 senators must agree to limit floor debate and overcome the filibuster.

Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on a compromise about the filibuster rules for the next two years, adopting suggestions from two other senators: McCain and Levin.

Now, the filibuster truce may be on shakier ground.

The Senate deal over filibuster rules came last month after threats from Reid to use the “nuclear option” or “constitutional option” to drastically change filibuster rules in the current Congress, on a strict party-line vote.

Both options would kill the filibuster as a tool in the Senate, by forcing a majority vote to amend the Senate’s rules under highly unusual circumstances. The nuclear option refers to a rewriting of the Senate rulebook on the first official day of business for a new Congress; the constitutional option would see a floor vote taken at any time to create a new standing rule that would end filibustering—until a new rule was approved to allow it.

The January compromise fell far short of reforms asked for by progressives, who wanted to see a return of the filibustering portrayed by actor Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The theory is that the filibuster process should be as painful and onerous as possible.

Reformers also wanted the cloture vote process reversed, where the minority party would have to produce 41 votes to prove that a filibuster was viable.

The concessions in the January agreement included easier passage of some judicial appointments, a requirement for filibuster threateners to actually debate on the floor if their party loses the cloture vote, and a provision to allow a minority party to tack on two related amendments to a bill.

This weekend, the website The Hill reported that some Democrats were again asking Reid to use the constitutional option to kill the filibuster if Republicans continued to block the Hagel nomination.

While it’s unlikely Reid would change his agreement with Senate Republicans, the Hagel nomination kept the issue of filibuster reform alive, when it had seemingly faded away in late January.

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