Republican Senate Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) objected to a unanimous-consent request from Democrats on Tuesday on a resolution that would have weakened filibuster rules and stalling tactics usually deployed by the minority on the floor of the Senate.
The resolution, supported in a spirited colloquy among Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) for most of Tuesday afternoon, would have eliminated some forms of the filibuster, ended secret holds, guaranteed consideration of amendments for both the majority and minority, required talking filibusters and expedited the nominations approval process.
The colloquy was heavily punctuated with references to the Jimmy Stewart film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and references to the wishes of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the widely acknowledged master of Senate procedure.
“The U.S. Senate has become the place where good House bills go to die," complained Udall. “The Senate was once called the greatest deliberative body in the world. Today there is very little deliberation at all."
Harkin said that the rules preventing Democrats from changing the rules were themselves unconstitutional.
“Here in the Senate because of a change in rules that happened many years ago it has bound every senator thereafter,” said Harkin referring to a rule that requires a supermajority to change the rules. “I think that’s unconstitutional.”
As Harkin and other Democrats pointed out, the Constitution requires a supermajority for presidential impeachment, to oust a member of Congress and for approval for international treaties, but allows each House to “determine the rules of its proceedings.”
Republicans, for the most part, did not participate in the debate until the very end, when Alexander objected to the unanimous-consent request. Members of leadership in the chamber, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have said that Democrats' attempt to change the rule is “a power grab.”