By Senator John Barrasso
Americans know that Washington is too partisan and gridlocked. And so, naturally, Senate Democrats are planning a power grab that will forever change the chamber and make it harder for members to strike agreements.
The rules of the Senate currently ensure a balanced approach to debating important matters. Among them is the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to end debate on a motion and move to a vote. The filibuster's purpose is to force competing groups of senators to find compromise solutions rather than ram through items driven by the extremes of either party.
Yet Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to undo this system by eliminating the 60-vote threshold.
Under the current rules, the Senate's minority party has limited opportunities to influence legislation. It can do so in three main ways: by offering amendments in committee, by offering amendments on the Senate floor, and by negotiating with the majority party before the so-called cloture vote to end debate.
Sen. Reid has already gutted two of these three opportunities, which is a major reason for today's stalemate.
He has made unprecedented use of Senate Rule 14, for example, whichallows the majority leader to bypass committees and write bills behind closed doors. Sen. Reid has used this rule to skip committees nearly 70 times, bringing bills straight to the floor--with zero input from members of the minority.
His other favorite maneuver, called "filling the tree," involves filling all the slots for amendments on the Senate floor so that no other senator (of either party) can offer one. He has done this 69 times since becoming majority leader in 2007. That is more than twice as often as the last four majority leaders combined.
One of the minority's few remaining options to improve legislation and represent their constituents is to try to get agreement on amendments before the cloture vote to bring the bill to the Senate floor. Because cloture requires 60 votes, a minority party with at least 40 seats can typically offer amendments this way. But if the 60-vote threshold is removed and this opportunity becomes unavailable, bills would move to a final vote without the minority ever having a chance to offer amendments. The minority--Republican or Democratic--would be dependent on the goodwill of the majority leader for any meaningful participation. And in Washington these days goodwill is in short supply.
Then there is the matter of whether Mr. Reid and his fellow Democrats are acting within their rights. In their push to jettison the 60-vote threshold, they are peddling the false notion that they can change Senate rules with a simple majority as long as they do so at the beginning of a new Congress. In fact, a change to the rules always requires 67 votes. Otherwise, any group of 51 senators could change the rules whenever they liked. The Senate has never worked that way.
When they served in the Senate, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden fought against the very steps Sen. Reid is trying to take today. In 2005, then-Sen. Obama said: "If the majority chooses to end the filibuster--if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate--then the fighting and bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse." Then-Sen. Biden agreed, saying: "At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it is about compromise and moderation."
If Senate Democrats succeed with their new plan, they will destroy any hope of achieving a balanced solution to the challenges we face. With less opportunity for minority participation, bills that come out of the Senate would be less nuanced and more biased toward one end of the spectrum. Today it is the liberal side; in the future, it may be the conservative side.
With a divided Congress, any viable solution to the challenges we face must be the product of thorough debate in the Senate. The current Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate won't pass each others' bills unless there is significant bipartisan support.
Since its inception, the American political system has functioned on majority rule but with strong minority rights. Democracy isn't winner-take-all. If Sen. Reid breaks the rules to change the rules, political minorities--and all Americans--will lose.