No vote on gun control? No votes on judicial nominees? Filibuster reform coming?

Original Reporting | By Samantha CookMeade Klingensmith |

May 22, 2013 — Last month, we reported on the fact that most Senate Democrats hide when asked about ending the cap on income that is subject to Social Security taxes. This month, we decided to try to find out where Senators actually stand on reforming filibuster rules.

The issue has drawn renewed attention in the face of the ability of a minority of Senators to prevent a vote on whether to expand background checks on gun sales, and in light of the Senate’s continued delays in confirming judicial and cabinet-level nominations.

Our focus was the Senators who supported the failed gun control legislation but who had not co-sponsored an effort to enact substantive filibuster reform this past January. Were they ready to support legislation that would curtail abuse of the filibuster?

Over the period from May 10 to May 16, Remapping Debate reached out repeatedly, through both phone calls and email messages, to the offices of the 34 Senators who voted for the Manchin-Toomey gun control legislation in April but were not co-sponsors of the “talking filibuster” bill in January, originally sponsored by Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Tom Harkin (D- Iowa) (see box titled “Legislative proposals to limit casual use of the filibuster”).

We found that many Senators were unresponsive to our repeated requests for comment, despite the fact that we posed straightforward questions about specific pieces of legislation to which it can be reasonably assumed each Senator has a position. Of the 34 Senate offices Remapping Debate repeatedly contacted — in most, cases five times — only eight responded to our inquiries. The remaining 26 either never responded or refused to comment. Of the eight that commented, three explicitly supported the “talking filibuster” proposal, and five broadly supported the need for some degree of filibuster reform but would not answer our questions regarding specific policy proposals.


Few open supporters

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) told Remapping Debate in an interview, “The use of stalling tactics in the United States Senate is inexcusable, and the rules should not condone this.” He said that though he did not co-sponsor the “talking filibuster” legislation proposed by Sens. Harkin, Merkley, and Tom Udall, “I did support that effort. The people who were moving it forward knew that they could count on my vote.” When asked about Sen. Harkin’s proposal, he replied, “I’m for just about any proposal that will diminish the use of filibusters in the United States Senate, and the Harkin proposal certainly gives a light at the end of the tunnel,” though he believes “there are more effective ways to get it done.” For example, he proposed dismantling the filibuster altogether: “I like the idea of just majority vote. I’m old-fashioned. I believe in a majority vote.”

In addition, the communications director for Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) wrote in an email, “Senator Lautenberg was a leading proponent of the talking filibuster,” noting that the Senator voted for the 2011 iteration of Senator Harkin’s proposal, and referred us to an op-ed the Senator wrote for Politico in January. Finally, a press secretary for Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sent us a list of the proposals for filibuster reform that the Senator has supported, which included a “talking filibuster” (though not Sen. Harkin’s proposal).


General support for limiting the filibuster

The office of Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) emailed us a statement from the Senator, which pointed out he has “voted for proposals that would make those that want to slow the process down stay on the Senate floor to voice their objections.”

Remapping Debate wrote back in a follow up email, asking if this was the case, why didn’t the Senator co-sponsor the Senate Resolution to create a “talking filibuster,” requiring those who filibuster to actually speak on the Senate floor. We received no reply.

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tom Carper (D-Del.), and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also declined to address whether or not they support the specific legislative proposals on filibuster reform we inquired about, although they did express broad support for rolling back the abuse of the filibuster.  

Legislative proposals to limit casual use of the filibuster

The start of this Congressional session saw the introduction of several pieces of legislation designed to reform the filibuster system. Sens. Harkin, Merkley, and Tom Udall proposed a Senate Resolution that would create a “talking filibuster,” requiring those who wish to hold up progress on a bill to actually hold the floor of the Senate for the duration of their filibuster.

This bill was co-sponsored by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

In addition, Senator Harkin proposed a more far-reaching plan that would, over the course of eight days, gradually reduce the number of votes required to cut off debate on a bill, from 60 for the first vote to 51 for the fourth. The most recent version of this proposal, which Harkin first introduced in 1995 and has periodically re-introduced since, only has two co-sponsors, Sens. Mikulski and Schatz.

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