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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
 

Election 2015: The big five of British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power