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Harkin Resolution Restores Senate Tradition; Reduces Filibuster Threat That Has Mired Chamber In Gridlock

January 5, 2011

Harkin Resolution Restores Senate Tradition; Reduces Filibuster Threat That Has Mired Chamber In Gridlock

The filibuster, once reserved for extraordinary circumstances, was used 136 times in 111th Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) today introduced a resolution that preserves the Senate tradition of extended debate and deliberation but reduces the threat of filibuster that has mired the chamber in gridlock.  Harkin introduced a similar measure in 1995, when Senate Democrats were in the minority.

“In too many areas – from job creation to immigration to energy – Americans see a legislature that is unable to respond to the challenges the country faces,” said Harkin.  “We simply cannot govern a 21st Century superpower with arcane, 19th Century rules, and we cannot continue down this path of obstruction, paralysis and de facto minority rule.”

In the 1950s, there was an average of one filibuster per Congress.  From 1995, when Harkin first introduced his reform proposal, through 2008, the number of filibusters per Congress increased 75 percent.  In the last Congress, the 111th Congress, there were an astonishing 136 motions to end filibusters.  Moreover, unlike the eight percent of major bills subject to a filibuster 40 years ago, over 70 percent of major bills were targeted last Congress.   

In keeping with Senator Harkin’s 1995 proposal, the resolution introduced today amends the Standing Rules of the Senate to permit a decreasing majority of Senators to invoke cloture.  On the first cloture vote, 60 votes would be needed to end debate.  If one did not get 60 votes, one could file another cloture motion and 2 days later have another vote.  That vote would require 57 votes to end debate.  If cloture was not obtained, one could file another cloture motion and wait 2 more days.  In that vote, one would need 54 votes to end debate.  If one did not get that, one could file one more cloture motion, wait 2 more days, and 51 votes would be needed to move to the merits of the bill.

Today’s resolution improves upon Senator Harkin’s 1995 proposal in a significant way by guaranteeing both parties amendments after cloture has been invoked.  This change was made to respond to assertions by the minority that filibustering of bills by the minority is a necessary response to actions by the majority party to prevent minority amendments by “filling the tree.”  To address this concern, and to promote the ability of both parties to offer relevant amendments, Harkin amended his proposal to guarantee to the majority and the minority three germane amendments after debate on the pending matter is brought to a close.