Local Viewpoints
11:36 am
Wed November 20, 2013

Udall: Senate Gridlock Must End

Credit Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)

  Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall again made the case for meaningful reform of the Senate rules, which he says is needed to end partisan gridlock and restore debate. Udall spoke on the Senate floor after a series of qualified presidential nominees for key positions were blocked by filibusters. He was joined by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has been a partner in advocating rules reform over the past several years. For video of Udall's remarks and the exchange with Merkley, click here.

In just the last four weeks, Republicans have filibustered Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency; and three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit: Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins.

At the beginning of this Congress, Republicans agreed to filibuster nominees only under “extraordinary circumstances.” Yet the pattern of obstruction has continued. In July, after months of Republican stalling and delay, senators finally reached an agreement to confirm several long-blocked nominees and stop abusing the rules for partisan gain. But, Udall said, the last series of filibusters show the Senate is right back in the same dysfunctional situation. 

"New Mexicans – all Americans – are tired of the gridlock in Washington. They’re tired of endless filibusters and political games,” Udall said after his speech. “When it comes to confirmations, historically, the Senate has used the filibuster only in extreme cases. With these last three D.C. Circuit nominees there hasn't even been a pretext for blocking their confirmation. Republicans are refusing to move forward on any nominees to the D.C. Circuit period. That's unprecedented obstruction, not advise and consent.”

Udall has said since 2009 that a permanent change in the Senate rules – including by requiring senators to actually make their argument by speaking on the floor during filibuster – is the only way to ensure the Senate will work for the American people again.

“We’ve tried to compromise, we've tried working out agreements, but each time they've gone right back to the same obstructionist tactics,” Udall said. “They’ve demonstrated that 'gentleman’s agreements' aren’t enough – we need to actually change the rules to make any real difference."

The following are Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

I began calling for rules reform four years ago. I said the Senate was a graveyard for good ideas. I am sorry to say that little has changed. The digging continues.

Americans are tired with the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington.  Filibusters.  Shutdowns.  Hyper-partisan attacks. 

Americans want reform in the way their government operates.  More cooperation.  More transparency.  Less partisanship.  More problem solving.

This week was one more example of why we need reform. Judge Robert Wilkins was a well qualified to serve on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He deserved an up or down vote. Instead? Another filibuster.

He is the fourth nominee to that court to be trampled on by the minority. Not because he is unqualified, not because of any failing on his part, but because a democratic president nominated him. For some, that is enough - that is all it takes to tell an eminent American to go home.

First it was Caitlin Halligan in March. Then Patricia Millett last month. Followed by Nina Pillard last week. And now Robert Wilkins. Each of them exceptional. Every one of them distinguished nominees. Each would be a credit to the Court of Appeals.

So, number four, and counting. In baseball, three strikes and you are out – not so in the Senate.

This isn’t just about rules. It is about having a Senate that works – not one that buckles under the weight of filibusters.

The partisan games continue, and the game has gone on long enough, because the losers are the American people.

Senators Merkley, Harkin and I proposed to change the rules at the beginning of this Congress – rules changes that were fair, that reined in the abuse and that protected the  minority.

We were very clear: we called for a talking filibuster and we argued that if the minority wants to continue debate—which is what voting against cloture is—they should actually have to stand on the floor and debate.

Instead, a compromise was reached. The two leaders agreed to “work together to schedule votes on nominees in a timely manner by unanimous consent, except in extraordinary circumstances.”

The Minority Leader said, “On the subject of nominations, Senate Republicans will continue to work with the majority to process nominations, consistent with the norms and traditions of the Senate.”

That was the agreement, and it has not been kept.

In July, we had another showdown on confirmations. All qualified candidates. All prepared to serve. But, nominated by a democratic president, or asked to lead agencies the other side doesn’t like: the Department of Labor, EPA, and the Consumer Financial Protection Board – all blocked. 

Once again, we looked at changing the rules with a simple majority – to restore the Senate’s ability to function. We had a historic meeting in the Old Senate Chamber, and we reached another compromise.

I was hopeful for the outcome. There was feeling on both sides that things had to change and that we needed to change the way we do business. We confirmed several nominees.

But here we are again – back on the filibuster merry go round and getting nowhere. Four months later, the same debate. The same partisan games, with qualified nominees denied an up or down vote.

And not just judicial nominees, but, also Congressman Mel Watt – blocked from leading the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The only “extraordinary circumstance” has been continual obstruction. This is not the norms and traditions of the Senate – it is the failure of partisan politics.

In fact, it wasn’t long ago that Republicans were the first to say so. During the Bush administration they were up in arms. Why? Because 10 judicial nominations had been blocked. Ten. That number seems quaint now, but it was enough for Republicans.

Here’s what the Republican Policy Committee said in 2005:

“This breakdown in Senate norms is profound. There is now a risk that the Senate is creating a new, 60-vote confirmation standard. The Constitution plainly requires no more than a majority vote to confirm…Exercising the constitutional option in response to judicial nomination filibusters would restore the Senate to its longstanding norms and practices governing judicial nominations, and guarantee that a minority does not transform the fundamental nature of the Senate’s advice and consent responsibility. This approach, therefore, would be both reactive and restorative.”

…restore the Senate to its longstanding norms and practices. It would be difficult to state the case more clearly.

One of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle said we should be careful what we wish for – that majority rule could backfire. We might get more Justice Scalias.

Well, that is exactly the point. The Constitution does not give me the right to block a qualified nominee, no matter who is in the White House.

The real “norms and traditions” of the Senate honor that principle.

Some of us may disagree with Justice Scalia on judicial philosophy. But he was a qualified nominee. He received an up or down vote, and he was unanimously confirmed.

Likewise, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the former ACLU general counsel, was considered liberal.  Many on the other side may have disagreed with her views, but there was no filibuster. She was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3. 

A minority in the Senate should not be able to block qualified nominees on either side of the aisle. That is not advise and consent – it is obstruct and delay.

The people elect a president. They give him or her the right to select a team to govern and to appoint judges to the federal bench. If those nominees are qualified, they deserve an up or down vote. That is how our democracy is intended to work.

That is the mandate of our Constitution. That is the real tradition of the Senate. That’s the way it’s supposed to work – and has worked that way in the past.

My dad was secretary of the Interior for President Kennedy. He later told me, “Tom, I had my whole team in place the first two weeks.” In place, ready to serve the American people in two weeks. The president’s team – his team to choose, so long as they are qualified to do the job.

My colleague on the other side is right – the winds can change. And let’s be candid – neither side is 100 percent pure. Both sides have had their moments of obstruction and no doubt had their reasons at the time.

But I don’t think the American people care much about that. They don’t want a history lesson or a lesson in parliamentary procedure. They want a government that’s fair, that’s reasonable and that works.

Unfortunately, we are back where we started, and – I regret to say – in record time. We need real Senate rules reform. We needed it at the beginning of this Congress, and we need it now.