Rupert Cornwell: The Senate really is the land where time stands still

Out of America: Democratic leader Harry Reid is using the age-old filibuster to strike a deal with the Republicans

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Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader of the United States Senate, has magical powers. Not only can he stop time, he has done so. His goal is to secure reform of the Senate's filibuster rules, which all too often reduce the self-styled "world's greatest deliberative body" to dysfunctional paralysis. One can only wish him luck. The filibuster's defiance of the natural laws is even more egregious than his own.

Throughout the known mathematical universe, 51 out of 100 constitutes a majority. Everywhere, that is, except the US Senate. There, to end debate and actually vote on a bill, 60 senators must approve what is called cloture. In the hyper-partisan, win-at-any costs universe of contemporary American politics, driven by lobbyists' and special-interest money, filibusters have spread like ragweed.

If used properly, they are not all bad. Filibusters can offer a chance of second thoughts about contentious legis-lation; indeed, George Washington spoke of the Senate, with its six-year terms, as a "saucer" in which to cool the initiatives of the more impetuous House of Representatives, where a majority of one suffices and whose members face re-election every two years. They also have a colourful history.

James Stewart launched his career as the heroically filibustering novice, Senator Jefferson Smith, in Frank Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). However, the real-life filibuster champ is Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, whose 24-hour 18-minute effort against voting reform set a record in August 1957 that will surely never be beaten. Legend has it the senator took a steam bath the previous evening to sweat excess liquid out of his body, so that he wouldn't need to relieve himself during his speech. In those days, filibusters were a last resort, kept for truly momentous issues such as civil rights.

Now they're the small change of legislative procedure. The minority leader doesn't even need to force a cloture vote, the mere threat of one is enough. Democrats too have wielded the filibuster weapon, but Republicans indubitably have been the worst offenders. Now a group of relatively new Democratic senators, furious at how Republicans strangled so much business during the 111th Congress despite never having more than 41 votes, are demanding action – now.

Ah, you may ask, but did not the Democrats enjoy a super-majority of 60 for a while, until Republican Scott Brown's upset victory in Ted Kennedy's old seat? So, why couldn't they push things through during those months of theoretically untrammelled power?

The answer is that they did, but often to the detriment of the original legislation, as senators who represented the crucial 58th, 59th, and 60th votes demanded special concessions. And you may pose an even more obvious question. In the new 112th Congress which has just convened, Republicans have not 41 votes, but 47. Can't they use the filibuster to kill filibuster reform? That is where Harry Reid's magic comes in.

The Senate has another weird rule, that on the opening day of a new Congress it can change its own rules by simple majority vote – but only on the opening day. That, for a man who can stop time, is no problem. Reid simply used another procedural rule allowing him to stretch opening day until the end of the month, long enough to do a deal with the Republicans.

Harry Reid wasn't born yesterday. He knows that in 2012 Democrats are defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for election, and their current 53-47 advantage could easily vanish. Imagine this same date of 9 January, but in 2013 with a solidly Republican House, a Republican-controlled Senate where minority Democrats no longer have filibuster powers, and perhaps a Republican in the White House. What price the survival of Obama's healthcare reform then?

So, the filibuster will survive, even if some modifications are introduced. The least likely would be a cut – 55 is a suggested figure – in the number of votes needed to secure cloture. Rarely in finely divided US politics does one party achieve 60 seats; 55, however, is commonplace. More plausible is a restriction on the occasions when a filibuster can be invoked, or a requirement that the filibustering party bring 40 of its members to the floor, a shift from the current onus on the majority to assemble its 60 votes. As matters stand, even 58-38 does not secure cloture. You've got to have 60.

Alternatively, the Senate might finally move to tackle a real scandal, the 18th-century custom that allows a single unidentified senator to place a secret "hold"' on a bill or a presidential nomination, and bring the proceedings to a shuddering halt, without the public having a clue of what's going on. That is why 94 senior federal judgeships that require Senate approval are currently vacant, prompting a huge backlog in cases.

One thing though is sure. Nothing will bring back the glory days – either of the fictional Jefferson Smith, or a real Strom Thurmond fresh from his steam bath and raring to go.

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