This was a vote on final passage of a resolution that would have overhauled the Senate’s rules. The resolution, which was introduced by Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), would have prohibited senators from anonymously blocking nominations (known as “secret holds”), and limited debate on motions to bring up legislation to two hours. The resolution also would have required senators who wish to filibuster legislation to speak for the duration of their filibuster. A filibuster allows a single senator to block legislation from being voted on. A 60-vote majority is required to defeat a filibuster.
Under the current rules of the Senate, senators could simply block legislation by telling their party leader that they opposed allowing a bill to come to a vote. There was no requirement that members speak in opposition to the bill they were blocking. Thus, critics argued that such “silent filibusters” made it far too easy for senators to block legislation from coming to a final vote. Thus, a number of Democrats sought to implement a “talking filibuster,” in which senators would have been required to speak for the duration of their filibuster.
Merkley urged support for the resolution: “There are many who say the Senate should be different than the House, that it should be a cooling saucer….But a cooling saucer is very different than the routine use of the filibuster to obstruct the ability to act, very different than the way it has been used these last 2 years to prevent us from doing appropriations bills [spending bills], from doing House bills, preventing nominations from being considered. That has to end. That has to change.”
Udall also argued in favor of the resolution: “ They [Republicans] said reforming the filibuster would be contrary to our founders' intent to make the Senate a more deliberative body. This argument makes little sense to me. The filibuster was never part of the original Senate--the founders made this body distinct from the House in many ways, but the filibuster is not one of them.”
Udall also noted that a “letter from seven prominent political science scholars… states the following: ‘[T]here is no explicit constitutional right to filibuster. In fact, there is ample evidence that the framers preferred majority rather than supermajority voting rules. The framers knew full well the difficulties posed by supermajority rules, given their experiences in the Confederation Congress under the Articles of Confederation (which required a supermajority vote to pass measures on the most important matters). A common result was stalemate; legislators frequently found themselves unable to muster support from a supermajority of the states for essential matters of governing.’”
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) argued that curtailing the filibuster violated the spirit of the constitution: “…If our founding fathers had not intended for supermajorities to determine certain acts of this Congress, why would two-thirds of us have to vote to pass a constitutional amendment and three-fourths of the states have to vote to ratify one? I think that showed the intent. If our founding fathers had not intended for minority representation to exist, I wouldn't have two senators like California; everybody would have a proportionate number of senators….with regard to the notion that we are the only democracy in the world to have a rule where majority rules, the fact is, that may be true. We are also the richest, safest, most prosperous democracy in the world, and that has a lot to do with the way we govern ourselves.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said: ‘This is not a small thing. I have the honor of representing 25 million people in the Senate, and this is not just about my rights as an individual senator or even the minority's rights, this is about their right--their right to be heard through an adequate time for debate, their right to have an opportunity to change or amend legislation, and then to have a chance to have it voted on.”
The Senate rejected this resolution by a vote of 44-51. 44 Democrats voted “yea.” 45 Republicans and 6 Democrats voted “nay.” (Under Senate rules, this resolution could only have passed with a two-thirds majority vote.) As a result, the Senate rejected a resolution that would have prohibited senators from anonymously blocking nominations, limited debate on motions to bring up legislation to two hours, and required senators who wish to filibuster legislation to speak for the duration of their filibuster.