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John E. Sununu

Burning down the Senate

Harry ReidJ. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

In the hallways of the US Capitol, intrepid visitors can still find scars left behind when the British burned the building to its foundation stones nearly 200 years ago. Today, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is doing his very best to repeat that history. Should he gain his way, Senate rules will be changed, the principle of unlimited debate will be restricted, and a fire will rage in the Senate that will burn for a long time to come.

Despite 30 years of service in Congress, Reid appears oblivious to the implications of the tired phrase “someday the shoe will be on the other foot.” In recent weeks, he has gratuitously insisted that his proposal to limit filibusters would be a broadly welcomed opportunity to improve the efficiency of the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Seven years ago, however, he sang a very different tune. Fighting for the right to stonewall Bush nominees in 2005, Reid, then the minority leader, called the filibuster “the last check we have against abuse of power.”

Some would label Reid’s policy pirouette as hypocrisy. At the least, it constitutes what John Cusack, playing the hit man with a heart of gold in the movie “Grosse Pointe Blank,” described as “a certain . . . moral flexibility.” Reid’s Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, equated the move to throwing “a bomb in the Senate” — something that’s never a good idea. But it’s especially bad now, as Congress and the president are trying to work out a major compromise on a pile of tax, spending, and entitlement issues.

Back in 2005, Senator Bill Frist, then the Republican majority leader, never acted on his threat to change the rules. At the time, I joined several other Republicans in refusing to commit to the idea, making the outcome of any vote uncertain. Leading the Republican opposition, John McCain prophetically declared that, “Someday we’ll have a liberal Democrat president and a liberal Democrat Congress. . . . I don’t know if it’s 100 years from now but it will happen.” My concerns prompted the only truly private conversation I had with the legendary Senator Robert C. Byrd, who summoned me to his office to talk about his favorite topic: Senate history, precedent, and tradition.


Since the chamber’s inception, the basic principles at work in the US Senate have been simple. When legislation is brought to the floor, all members are given the chance to speak and offer amendments. When they are done speaking and amending, they vote. The design protects the rights of the minority as well as the rights of individual senators, no matter their party affiliation. All the rules of the Senate are intended to facilitate — not restrict — this process.


Historically, once a bill was on the floor, one or two senators could slow things down by talking at length — the traditional “filibuster” — but eventually exhaustion would win over. Nothing would be left to say, and a vote would take place. Twenty or 30 members working together, however, could stop a bill in its tracks by talking endlessly in rotation. “Cloture” (the anti-filibuster rule) was created in 1917 after a series of filibusters thwarted Woodrow Wilson’s wartime agenda. The original requirement for 67 votes to shut off debate was eventually whittled down to 60 votes in response to Southern Democrats’ coordinated efforts to kill civil rights legislation in the 1950s and ’60s.

The cloture rule was intended not to restrict amendments or debate — just to ensure that the right to unlimited debate would not be used to shut down the entire legislative process. Reid has turned this concept on its head by repeatedly using legislative procedure to curtail debate and, often, to prohibit Republican amendments he doesn’t like.

And when Senate Democrats complain that the chamber has had over 300 filibusters in the last six years, they’re usually referring to situations like this: As majority leader, Reid holds the “power of recognition” — like the teacher’s pet, if he has his hand up, he gets called on first. Using that power, he has repeatedly called up legislation, offered the maximum number of amendments allowed at any one time, and then filed a motion to close debate. When Republicans inevitably object, he goes to the microphones and accuses them of mounting yet another “filibuster.”


Reid’s tactics have unified the Senate Republican caucus, and no doubt raised concerns among many of his Democratic colleagues. John McCain was right: What goes around comes around. Any effort to restrict the rights of the minority now will inspire the deepest kind of antipathy and leave lasting scars on both sides of the aisle.

Reid should study his history. In the end, the burning of the Capitol served no useful purpose; the British lost the war, and the event left a stain on their reputation for decades to come.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.