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Dunsmore: Filibuster

(Host) By a wide margin Americans believed the last United States Congress was dysfunctional. Now many voters are concerned that last week's election didn't do much to alter that partisan gridlock. However,as commentator and veteran ABC News correspondent Barrie Dunsmore explains, there is a revision of senate rules being contemplated that could make the next Congress quite different.

(Dunsmore) Among the most important reasons the outgoing US Congress was dysfunctional was the excessive use of the senate filibuster. That's not my opinion. It is the analysis of two of the most experienced and respected non-partisan congressional scholars in Washington - Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. In their latest book on the Congress, which they title, It's Even Worse Than It Looks. they devote more than twenty pages to the filibuster. They document that since President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, the Republican minority used the filibuster to quote, delay and obstruct...on nearly all matters. They add, It's fair to say that this pervasive use of the filibuster has never before happened in the history of the senate.

Most Americans are aware of the filibuster- but perhaps only vaguely. Some may think of it in terms of the 1939 movie Mr. Smith goes to Washington, when Jimmy Stewart took to the senate floor and in an effort to expose corruption in his own state, spoke all night until he collapsed. That's fiction. In fact, nowadays just the threat of a filibuster - and there have been more than 300 in the past four years - can bring the senate to a screeching halt and each threat sets in motion procedures that can tie up senate work for days or even weeks. As it requires 60 senate votes to over-ride even the most frivolous filibuster threat, far too often in Obama's presidency the senate minority has ruled.

The filibuster is not a product of the Constitution. It became part of the senate's own rules in the early 1800s. Those rules have been modified at least two other times, but historically, even during the civil rights battles of the sixties, it was not a major impediment to the workings of the senate, so both parties felt it worthwhile keeping.

Just two years ago, Senate majority leader Harry Reid decided against making major changes in the filibuster, and he was supported by quite of few of the more traditional Democratic senators. But sentiments are changing. Reid himself now says he made a mistake. And every one of the seven new Democratic senators elected last week have pledged to support filibuster reform. The Independent senator-elect Angus King of Maine, who joined the Democratic senate caucus earlier this week, made filibuster reform a central plank in his election campaign.

As of now, it is not certain that 50 senate Democrats would support new rules - which don't abolish the filibuster entirely - but would change it so that a minority of the senate can no longer consistently thwart the wishes of the majority.

The most opportune time to do this would be on the first day of business after the presidential inauguration, when fifty senators plus presiding officer Vice President Joe Biden would be able to vote to end the partisan gridlock by restoring democracy to the United States Senate.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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