There’s one thing you can almost always count on when the party that controls the Senate gets annoyed with the minority party: leaders will start talking about changing the Senate rules on filibuster (Rule 22) .

In August 2005, then-Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN) proposed to modify Senate rules with a “nuclear option” (so dubbed by former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi; CRS analysis-pdf) that would keep Democrats from being able to block Presidential nominees by using the filibuster.

Today it’s Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) who is arguing that the Republicans are in the wrong, that they are “abusing” cloture:

“This Republican Senate has started abusing the rules, so we’re going to have to change it,” Reid told liberal bloggers assembled in Las Vegas for the “Netroots Nation” conference.

The filibuster is related to “cloture,” a rule adopted almost 100 years ago to limit debate or to offset “efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent action on a bill.” The Senate had no limits on debate until 1917, when the Senate adopted Rule 22; it allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote; this tactic is known as cloture. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds (67) to three-fifths (60) of the 100-member Senate. At the same time, they made the filibuster “invisible” by requiring only that 41 Senators state that they intended to filibuster; critics say this makes the modern filibuster “painless.”

In actuality, initiatives like Reid’s and Frist’s are exercises in hot air: it takes 67 votes (two-thirds majority) to change Senate rules. This simply doesn’t happen: see this chart showing the balance of power between Congress and the White House (the President). Since 1945, one party has had more than 67 votes once.

Bah. Humbug. More pandering to the faithful instead of exercising leadership or even (gasp) statesmanship.

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KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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