UPDATE: Looks like the vote on Senate reform has been pushed back until late January, probably the 24th. All the more time to call your senator!

Woman with phoneCall your senator already.On Wednesday, the 112th Congress will hold its first and likely most consequential vote. That’s when the Senate will decide whether to adopt a new set of rules — most significantly whether to reform the filibuster. I never say this, but: Call your senator!

I’m still not sure whether climate hawks understand how central Senate rules have been to the Obama Era’s frustrations. All the policy analysis, all the grassroots activism, all the PR and lobbying, all the polling and media and hoopla of modern politics, all of it eventually has to funnel through the tight space of the Senate, where progress can be halted by a determined minority, sometimes a determined minority of one. For an issue like energy that’s regional as much as ideological, it is prohibitively difficult to get 60 votes for ambitious change in an already unrepresentative Senate.

Senate Republicans made a strategic decision to meet the Obama administration with monolithic opposition. The only thing restraining previous minority parties from forcing multiple supermajority votes on every single piece of legislation, eating weeks of floor time even for bills with broad bipartisan support, was convention and decency. Republicans have all but formally dispensed with those. Here’s the consequence:

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Breaking the filibuster: 1919-2010Ezra Klein made this chart from this data.

Some younger senators like Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have been agitating for reform for a while now. They support the “constitutional option,” which takes advantage of Article I, Section 5 to have the Senate vote itself a new set of rules at the beginning of the session. Here’s Udall explaining it:

The quest for reform was considered fairly quixotic until last week, when every single returning Democratic senator signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) encouraging him to take up filibuster reform. That gave the campaign a huge push.

The question now is what if anything has a chance of passing. While there’s broad support for reform, there’s internal disagreement about which reforms and how far they should go. That leaves Reid in a position to swoop in, take control of the process, and — a cynic might say — defang the reform. He seems to have disappeared into a back room with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and no one’s sure what will come out. The reformers themselves don’t know either. (For the record, here’s a PDF of Merkley and Udall’s proposal.)

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TPM’s Brian Beutler has a nice rundown on where things stand and what might happen on Wednesday. Suffice to say, things are in a highly uncertain state. This being the U.S. Senate, I have to say the smart money is on some sort of toothless gesture. But who knows. Anything can happen. Call your senator.


Further reading:

Before anything else, check out my special series “Rules of Enragement,” with contributions from Sen. Udall, congressional procedure guru David Waldman, constitutional scholar Mimi Marziani, and blogger Matt Yglesias, whose record on the filibuster, it should be noted, has been long and perspicacious.

Here are some recent editorial boards in support:

Here are some good recent op-eds on the subject:

(OK, they need better headlines.)

Fix the Senate Now is a reformist site that pulls together lots of good info and links.

Finally, for those with an academic bent, check out William Blake of UT-Austin: “The Filibuster, the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.” He argues that “the filibuster is inconsistent with the vision of the Senate expressed by the Framers in the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and early congressional history.”