Harry Reid, Filibuster Buster?

The president is a Democrat, the Senate’s Democratic and the House is Republican. Nevada has a Republican governor and Democratic Legislature. But we all agree on the need to end partisan gridlock.

Uh, not really. Everybody wants the opposition to have gridlock.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, though, wants to do something about our legislative clogged arteries. After opposing reforms in the Senate rules, the majority leader has rethought his position over the last couple of years. Now Reid is considering changing the requirement that 60 senators vote in order to allow most legislation to come to the floor.

Why he’s doing it is obvious enough. In 2009, several Republican leaders met the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration and agreed to oppose everything. They have largely done so: While Democrats used the filibuster 68 times during their last period in the minority, Republicans have used it 110 times in 2011-12 and nearly 400 times since 2007.

In 2011, Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed not to force through rule changes in return for McConnell using the filibuster “with discretion.” He since has displayed about as much discretion as David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell. While many Democrats despise McConnell, he and Reid understand each other. Neither is a matinee idol or future presidential candidate; rather, they’re wily operators, superb at keeping their caucuses almost completely united.

With McConnell using that unity simply to be obstructionist, though, there’s a limit. As Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson told The Associated Press, Democrats can compromise, but McConnell “has got to know that the American people on Tuesday [November 6] completely rejected his entire approach to governing, obstruction and gridlock at every turn.”

Why Reid has opposed change before may seem less obvious. First, Reid has an old-fashioned respect for Senate traditions. These included deference to senior colleagues or the more knowledgeable: Reid wouldn’t have told the foreign relations chair what to do about the Middle East, and that senator wouldn’t have told Reid what to do about mining. Times—and Reid—have changed, but not completely.

Republicans counter that Reid won’t let them amend legislation, but he knows their goal is to amend it to death. Further, the idea of Democrats simply forcing through a rule change is known as “the nuclear option” because it supposedly will inflame partisanship. As if there’s so little partisanship now.

Second, Reid grasps that the tide of history and politics doesn’t always run his way. When Reid succeeded Tom Daschle as Senate Democratic leader after the 2004 election, he served as minority leader. Republicans had a 55-45 majority. Reid and his caucus used the filibuster to block some of George W. Bush’s measures and appointments—some.

Now Reid’s majority is 55-45, including a Maine independent caucusing with Democrats. But Reid knows that could change—especially after the 2014 elections. In the midterms, the president’s party often takes a beating—not necessarily the bloodbath Democrats endured in 2010, but a loss. What Reid does could come back to haunt him and his party.

But not necessarily, and thus another tie to history: One proposal is to change the rule to make it a real filibuster. Historically, to block or kill legislation, one senator or a group of senators had to stay on the floor and literally talk it to death, and thereby keep the Senate from doing anything else. (The late Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., set a record by speaking against a civil rights bill for nearly 24 hours—without once mentioning that he fathered an African-American daughter.) In the 1970s, Senate Democratic leaders changed the rules to simply require 60 senators to agree to cut off debate. And now they’re paying for it.

All of this filibuster talk could be avoided if Republicans considered legislation on the merits, rather than whether Obama is behind it. Perhaps that noted advocate of bipartisanship, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., could help change his party’s ways. The proposed rule changes suggests Reid’s confidence in that prospect—and the need for Americans to have confidence in Reid so that the Senate actually can do something.