The best political news we've heard in a long time was of the agreement reached earlier this week between U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on a temporary suspension of GOP filibusters long enough to allow an up-or-down Senate vote on several pending administrative appointments by President Obama.
The Republican leadership will lift its roadblock on cloture in return for Reid's pledge not to seek the long-discussed "nuclear option" — a change in Senate rules that would weaken the potential for filibuster or eliminate altogether that venerable means by which minority blocs in the Senate have long been able to prevent a majority from bringing this or that measure to the floor.
As part of the deal, Obama has agreed to withdraw two nominees regarded by the GOP as unpalatable, substituting two new nominees who, as part of the arrangement, will not be filibustered.
To remind our readers: A filibuster, permitted historically under Senate rules, is the indefinite continuation of Senate debate, or some facsimile of it, coupled with a refusal to cooperate with a vote of cloture, which requires 60 senators to permit a measure to be considered aye or nay on the floor. Used judiciously, as once was the custom, the filibuster can serve a valuable purpose — as it did, say, in 1954, when then Tennessee senators Albert Gore and Estes Kefauver combined in a speaking orgy that prevented consideration of legislation that would have crippled the Tennessee Valley Authority. A version of the filibuster was wielded two weeks ago in the Texas legislature by state senator Wendy Davis to obstruct a bill designed to curtail women's abortion rights in that state.
The device has come in for serious abuse in recent years, however, and is now invoked routinely by the Republican minority in the Senate to prevent floor action on almost every measure favored by President Obama. As Senator Reid has noted, there were six filibusters during the eight years of Lyndon Johnson's tenure as Senate majority leader. There have been more than 400 filibusters during his own, a factor more responsible for the present governmental gridlock than any other.
As indicated, the current deal between the two Senate leaders is only temporary, but that cuts both ways. If McConnell and his cohort embark once more on indiscriminate and obstructionist use of the filibuster, Reid has indicated he has the votes on his side to impose the nuclear option and will use them.
Up until now, there have been holdouts for the filibuster on both sides of the aisle. For all its venerable history and its occasional noble purpose, however, the filibuster may be a tradition that has outlived itself and is unsuited for our own fast-breaking time.
If it were up to us, we'd probably prefer to see a proper and permanent burial of the filibuster device. But this temporary agreement is the next best thing. We can only hope that Senator Reid is not bluffing with his threat of or-else consequences if this gentleman's agreement is breached.