The speech came days before Senate Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to squelch bipartisan efforts to pass a COVID-19 relief package before the holiday break. Udall replaced Senate icon Pete Domenici when he moved from the House to the Senate. But he looked to another former senator from New Mexico, Clinton Anderson, for inspiration. In the 1950s, Anderson argued that each new Congress brings with it a new Senate that can change the rules with a simple majority vote.
Udall joined with Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa in attempting to push through a rule change at the start of the 112th Congress in 2011 ending the filibuster rule, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes for legislation to pass. “We have the power to change the Senate from being a graveyard for good ideas to an institution that can respond effectively to the challenges facing our nation,” he said at the time.
To his credit, Udall maintained his support for what he called the “Constitutional Option” throughout his time in the Senate, whether his party was in the majority or minority. But there was never enough support to force a change. I suspect that’s because other members of the Senate aren’t as optimistic as he is.
Udall looks at the filibuster and sees all the great bills that were never passed. Others see all the horrible bills that were never passed. And during the first two years of the Trump administration, when Republicans controlled the House and Senate, that was a frightening list. Unfortunately, that outlook precludes bold solutions and suggests that the best we can hope for from Congress is that they don't make things worse.
Udall is right when he argues that the filibuster rule is being exercised in ways that were never envisioned by the founders. And that it has not produced compromise, only paralysis. The Senate has become an exercise of raw political power where a person’s word has no value and there is no expectation of or basis for trust.
If Republicans win either of the two Senate races next month in Georgia, talk of ending the filibuster will become moot and we’ll go back to the frustration and gridlock of the Obama administration. But if Democrats win both of those seats, there will be a debate about ending the rule that’s probably long overdue.
I fear that if the filibuster is simply removed, the minority party will be excluded from the process and there will be even less collaboration and compromise than there is now. I don’t know if there would be a way to restrict use of the filibuster so that it’s still available, but not so widely abused. Like in the past.
When Domenici left the Senate, he had deep and lasting friendships with members from both parties. That was the foundation for what grew into the Domenici Public Policy Conference at NMSU.
What’s really needed is a restoration of trust and a rebuilding of mutual respect. I’m not sure that can be accomplished with a rule change.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to the audio version.
Tom Udall entered the U.S. Senate in 2009 as an idealist with big plans to make dramatic changes. He’ll leave 12 years later as a realist. Or, as he put it in his farewell address, a “troubled optimist.” “The Senate is broken. It’s not working for the American people,” Udall said. “We are becoming better and better warriors. We’re good at landing a punch - at exposing hypocrisy and riling each other up. But we aren’t fostering our better angels.”
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