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Ending ‘silent filibuster’ will help the Senate function again

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The Senate has a lot of work to do in its new session, from confirmation hearings to budget matters to legislation on gun policy. But perhaps the most consequential decision the chamber must make has to do with the rules controlling the Senate itself. The filibuster, a tactic by which a minority party can thwart the Senate majority by endlessly dragging out debate, lately has become all too routine a roadblock in the legislative process. As Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiate over possible reforms, they least they can do is require minority parties to carry out a filibuster threat by speaking on the Senate floor.

The filibuster used to be reserved for extenuating circumstances; on matters of import, a senator who believed that the majority is heading in the wrong direction could stop a vote by refusing to stop talking. Now, the accepted practice allows for a silent filibuster, which is merely a threat to delay action (sometimes sent by email). It then requires a super-majority of 60 to overcome it. This kind of filibuster is easy enough, and comes at so low a political cost, that the minority party has every reason to use it regularly.

Reid, who understands that someday Republicans will again be in the majority, is understandably eager to avoid passing a rules change with 51 Democratic votes, as arcane Senate procedure may now allow him to do. To avoid that, Republicans should at least be able to support a “talking filibuster” rule, which will preserve a minority faction’s right to hold up legislation — but would require them to work for it and do so under intense public scrutiny.

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