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'Mr. Smith' filibuster change introduced in the Senate

By Ed Hornick and Ted Barrett, CNN
Sen. Frank Lautenberg's proposal would require senators to speak on the Senate floor if they want to filibuster.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg's proposal would require senators to speak on the Senate floor if they want to filibuster.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The legislation would require a senator to speak in the chamber to filibuster
  • "The Senate has become a deadlocked body," Sen. Lautenberg says
  • A second proposal also would end "secret holds"
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Washington (CNN) -- Senate Democrats on Wednesday introduced legislation that would tighten rules on the use of the filibuster in the legislative chamber.

In a nod to the classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, reintroduced his "Mr. Smith Bill," which would require those who want to filibuster a nomination or a bill to appear on the floor and actually speak.

The filibuster -- a parliamentary procedure that allows a single senator to block a vote on a bill -- has been a long-standing tradition in the Senate but came under heavy criticism in the last Congress. Republican senators, who are in the minority, repeatedly use the tactic to stall Democrats' legislative items, such as the health care reform bill.

"The filibuster is being abused to create gridlock and prevent the Senate from doing the people's business. Instead of being a deliberative body, the Senate has become a deadlocked body," Lautenberg said in a press release Wednesday. "The 'Mr. Smith Bill' would help break the obstruction in Washington, bring transparency to lawmaking and hold senators accountable for their actions. This bill will stop senators from launching a filibuster and then skipping off to dinner, leaving our work in a stalemate."

The bill -- co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York -- also would require that the Senate move for an immediate vote once debate ends and those conducting the filibuster give up the floor.

"Right now, senators are allowed to filibuster and force the Senate to use up a week or more on a single nomination or bill, even if there is no debate occurring on the floor," Lautenberg's office said. "Under the Lautenberg proposal, that time could be reduced significantly."

Typically, a Senate rule change requires a super majority of 67 yes votes, something that will be difficult for Democrats, with their narrow 53-seat majority, to achieve. However, on the first legislative day of a new Congress, a simple majority of senators, just 51 votes, can approve new rules.

According to Lautenberg's office, 91 cloture votes were taken in the 111th Congress -- almost "four times the 24 cloture votes taken 20 years ago and almost double the 54 cloture votes required in the 109th Congress (2005-2006), when Republicans were last in the majority."

Another filibuster reform proposal also is gaining attention.

The Udall-Harkin-Merkley Rules Reform Package would help "increase transparency, restore accountability, and foster debate," according to the office of Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.

"Blocking a vote with a filibuster used to be rare and reserved for extreme situations. Today, major bills, non-controversial bills, sometimes multiple steps on the same piece of legislation, and even non-controversial nominees face filibusters. There have been more filibusters since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980," it said.

The proposed changes would simply curb the use of filibusters but not ban them.

Udall is considering four key proposals as part of the resolution:

One would prevent filibusters on taking up a bill or on a nomination, although it would still allow filibusters to end debate on a bill. A second would eliminate so-called "secret holds" in which a senator can anonymously stall legislation or a nomination from coming to the floor. A third would require senators leading a filibuster to stay on the floor and debate the issue during the entire filibuster.

A fourth proposal would appease GOP concerns about being locked out of the process. It would require allowing a certain number of amendments from the minority party for any bill being debated.

Getting these proposals through will be an uphill battle.

Senate leaders, using their own procedural smoke and mirrors, will postpone votes on the proposals until late January at the earliest as they negotiate possible compromises to the politically contentious issue, according to Senate leadership aides from both parties.

Not all Democrats support the changes. Some, who have seen control of the Senate switch back and forth, are reluctant to weaken the rights given to minority party.

Because negotiations need time to play out, Senate leaders won't adjourn after Wednesday's session, during which new members will be sworn in.

Instead, the technical "legislative day" will be extended through at least January 24, when senators return from a two-week break. Doing so will allow Democrats to preserve their ability to pass the reforms with just 51 votes if negotiations break down.

Republicans say they've increased the number of filibusters only because Democrats have repeatedly blocked their amendments, preventing GOP input on many key bills.

 
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