Obama backs filibuster reform – but what impact would it have?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 26, 2012, following the Democrats' weekly strategy...
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 26, 2012, following the Democrats' weekly strategy...
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Momentum is building to change the rules of the Senate to counter chronic Republican obstructionism. But supporters say the move isn’t about passing new legislation right away. Rather, it’s part of a long-term strategy to make a genuine progressive agenda possible.

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s push for filibuster reform won backing from President Obama Wednesday. “[Americans] want to see progress, not partisan delay games,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “The President supports Senator Reid’s efforts to reform the filibuster process.”

A coalition of major progressive groups, including the Sierra Club, the United Auto Workers, the Communications Workers of America, and Common Cause, also is getting behind Reid.

There’s no question the Senate is broken. Since Republicans entered the minority in 2007, there have been 385 cloture motions—that is, votes to end a filibuster. The most for any six-year period between 1918 and 1964? Nine. The congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote Wednesday that since 2007, “[f]or the first time ever, filibusters became weapons of mass obstruction, not rarely applied approaches by minorities in the Senate to draw lines in the dust on issues of great national moment where they felt intensely.”

Since 2009, Republican filibusters, or the threat of one, have thwarted the DREAM Act, climate-change legislation, and a public option for healthcare, among other key progressive priorities.

But the changes Reid is said to want likely wouldn’t stop the GOP minority from continuing to block major legislation. The details could change, but reports suggest Reid wants to ban filibusters only the motion to proceed—that is, to begin debate on a bill—as well as on motions to get a bill into a conference committee. He’d also require the minority to actually occupy the floor and talk during a filibuster, as used to be done, potentially raising the political costs of the move. But Republicans could still filibuster to prevent a vote on the final bill—as they almost certainly would do on any significant piece of legislation.

Sarah Binder, an expert on Senate procedure at the Brookings Institution, said we shouldn’t expect Reid’s reforms to fundamentally change how the Senate functions.

“It’s reasonable to question how much impact these filibuster bans would have,” she told msnbc.com.

Reformers can’t go further than the modest steps Reid’s proposing, Binder added, because they lack the support, even among the Democratic caucus—some of whose older members fear that their own leverage could be jeopardized by a whole-scale elimination of the filibuster. “I don’t think they think they have the votes,” she said. And that leaves aside the issue of how the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, would react.

Larry Cohen, the president of the Communications Workers of America, acknowledged that Reid’s reforms won’t immediately allow the labor movement to pass priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). In 2009, the GOP used a filibuster to prevent EFCA even coming to the floor.

But that doesn’t mean the changes wouldn’t do some good, Cohen argued. Merely forcing the Senate to debate bills, rather than being able to filibuster up front, would be in the public interest.

“It’s not so much about what are we going to enact,” Cohen said, noting that Republicans control the House anyway. “It’s about, is the Senate going to discuss anything?”

Forcing Republicans to talk while filibustering would focus attention on their opposition to popular measures, like the DREAM Act. “They’d actually have to say: ‘For the first time ever in this country, there’s no American Dream for immigrants,’” Cohen said.

Cohen portrayed the prospective changes as part of a longer-term strategy—along with other good government measures like campaign finance reform—to fix what many progressives see as a broken democratic process. Only when that’s done, they argue, will it be possible to enact a genuine, far-reaching progressive agenda.

“This is a linchpin in terms of how do we start to get a democracy in this country again,” Cohen said. “It’s got nothing to do with labor issues per se.”

“The lowest hanging fruit on that tree are the Senate rules,” he added. “So it’s a starting point.”