When Sen. Joe Lieberman issued fresh threats to filibuster any health-care reform proposal including a public option, he did more than just blunt the momentum generated by the House of Representatives’ passage of a bill this weekend. Lieberman also took his place in a venerable line of legislators bent on using parliamentary procedure to hold up the works. The deans of delay have already been hard at work this Congress, blocking Obama’s nominations for the federal bench and slowing the appointment of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. It's all becoming too much for Majority Leader Harry Reid, who let loose on the GOP for obstructionist tactics last week after Republicans held up a bill extending unemployment benefits for weeks, even though it passed unanimously after they relented.
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These tactics have a rich history. Beginning in the 19th century—historians usually trace the first major threat of a legislative slowdown to 1841—the filibuster became the obstructionist’s weapon of last resort—a way for a passionate minority, sometimes a minority of one, to put the breaks on legislation. The marathon-length address embraced by crusaders and cranks alike—and knew no partisan bounds.
So who are the most epic obstructionist senators today? While there is no reliable means of tallying filibusters and holds, some lawmakers have truly distinguished themselves in recent years. Remember: the further from the center of power a member is, the more attractive these tactics designed to protect the minority appear to be. Among the league leaders in delay of game:
1. Joe Lieberman
The Democratic nominee for vice president just nine years ago, Lieberman today is a man without a party; though he caucuses with the Democrats, he won reelection as an independent. And his latest threat—to filibuster any health-care reform bill that comes before the Senate bearing a public option—is giving the Democrats fits. “If the public option plan is in there, as a matter of conscience, I will not allow this bill to come to a final vote because I believe debt can break America and send us into a recession that’s worse than the one we’re fighting our way out of today,” Lieberman said on Fox News over the weekend. But, as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein notes, the argument doesn't even begin to make sense: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that a public option would reduce the deficit and since it's funded by individual premiums instead of taxpayer dollars, there's no public liability attached. The baffling disconnect has supporters of health-care reform worried that Lieberman's objections might be personal and idiosyncratic—given his many tangles with the Democratic Party, including a primary loss in 2006 to Ned Lamont that led him to run as an independent.
2. Tom Coburn
Secret holds upset the natural order on Capitol Hill; it’s difficult to figure out who is behind them, so it’s harder still to know who to lobby to get them lifted. An exception to the rule: Sen. Tom Coburn, who is so proud of the procedural roadblocks he’s placed in recent years that he has a section of his personal Web site devoted to the practice. At one point in 2008, Coburn was delaying nearly 80 bills, according to The New York Times, including a $10 billion collection of omnibus legislation that lawmakers had dubbed the “ Tomnibus.” Most recently, Coburn has used his parliamentary tricks to hold up a major veterans' health-benefits bill, prompting Democratic lawmakers to hold a press conference all but begging him to withdraw his objections on Monday.
3. Jim DeMint
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• Paul Begala: Forget Bipartisanship“The onus has been turned on the leader to get the 60 votes,” said Sarah Binder, co-author of Politics or Principle: Filibustering in the United States Senate. After a military coup took place in Honduras in June and the democratically elected president was forced into exile, most would have thought it a good idea to have State Department officials in place with relevant experience who could address the fallout in the region. But that wasn’t the path Sen. Jim DeMint followed. He not only defended the generals behind the coup but protested the White House's condemnation of it by placing holds on the nominations of Arturo Valenzuela, Obama's pick to oversee Latin American affairs for the State Department, and Thomas Shannon, Obama's choice for ambassador to Brazil. "I will not lift the hold on these nominations until the United States works out an arrangement with the Honduran government to recognize the outcome of the elections in Honduras and restores the U.S. foreign aid that has been cut by the Obama administration,'' DeMint told the Miami Herald in September, essentially holding American foreign policy hostage. He finally released his holds this week after the Honduran government reached a tentative deal with deposed president Manuel Zelaya that would allow him to return to his country, although the final status of the arrangement is in serious doubt.
4. Mitch McConnell
As the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell has set the stage for the numerous procedural difficulties Democrats have faced in moving legislation forward. “Mitch McConnell is the architect of the Republican filibuster, which now is applied to virtually all controversial bills,” Thomas Mann, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Beast. While a Republican filibuster on major legislation like health-care reform are hardly surprising, critics have accused McConnell of going overboard by flexing the muscle on less objectionable legislation. This month, the GOP filibustered an extension of an unemployment bill; when they finally relented, it passed 98-0. Republican leaders said they did it to protest what they saw as a lack of consideration for their proposed amendments. But arguments over parliamentary procedure were likely little comfort for the 200,000 laid-off workers who temporarily lost their unemployment benefits thanks to the delay. Majority Leader Harry Reid has gone after the Republican leadership in recent days over a host of alleged delays, including putting off confirming the surgeon general during the H1N1 crisis.
5. Sam Brownback
The senator from Kansas is best known for his social conservatism; he once held up one of George W. Bush's judicial nominees for months because she attended a gay couple's “commitment ceremony.” But lately it's the Pentagon that's borne the brunt of his tendency to place holds on administration appointments. He's delayed votes on crucial positions, including Army Secretary John McHugh—whose appointment Brownback held up in protest of a proposed plan that would house Guantanamo Bay detainees in Kansas' Fort Leavenworth prison. Iraq ambassador Christopher Hill was hit with a hold in protest of the administration's policy toward North Korea. At one point, Brownback threatened to use his full 30 hours of allotted debate time in opposing Hill's confirmation, a delay tactic right out of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington playbook, before ultimately relenting.
6. Robert Byrd
The Senate's most senior member is a self-appointed defender of many of the arcane procedural motions that obstructionists employ. He should know; he wrote many of them into the rules. Although Democrats can in theory pass legislation like health-care reform or cap-and-trade with only a bare majority through a process known as reconciliation, the move was made more difficult to pull off thanks to the eponymous “Byrd rule,” which requires such bills to relate to reducing the deficit. The senator helped institute the requirement in 1985, but stated at the outset of the current legislative session that he still opposed using reconciliation for major pieces of legislation. “As one of the authors of the reconciliation process, I can tell you that the ironclad parliamentary procedures it authorizes were never intended for this purpose," he wrote in a letter to colleagues.
The filibuster was once a muscular event, if one that required a flair for the theatrical (Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of New York singing “South of the Border”) or absurd (Louisiana Sen. Huey Long giving recipes for fried oysters). Filibustering was as physical a contest as politicking could be—Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes; Sen. Wayne Morse held up an oil bill for 22 hours and 26 minutes in 1953; most recently, D’Amato filibustered for more than 15 hours against a bill that would close a typewriter factory in his district. Senators had to put their backs, knees, and throats on the line in support of their principles.
Today’s legislators talk a good game, but the game has changed; they can threaten a filibuster, bring the Senate to a halt—then go home, watch a movie, and eat dinner with the family.
“Why? Why don’t they put those senators' feet to the fire and make them stand all night? In large part there are such pressing agendas that no one really wants to sacrifice the time.”
Not everyone sees this change as an improvement. Harry McPherson, who has seen plenty of filibusters since serving as counsel to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1950s, said it may be time to bring the sleepover back to the Senate.
“Why is it that certain people throw up their hands if they don’t have 60 votes? Why don’t they just go ahead and force the opponents to filibuster? Filibustering is not a pleasant thing to do,” McPherson said. “In 1960, the place was full of cots. Senators were sleeping in all kinds of places. Many of these people, more then than now, were elderly people. It was quite unpleasant.”
The filibuster isn’t the only weapon at a delay-minded senator’s disposal. The anonymous hold—by which one senator can secretly hold up a bill or appointment and force the majority leader to go through a time-consuming hoops to overcome the objections—has become increasingly popular in recent years. The use of such tactics helps explain why President Obama has had considerable difficulty getting his judicial nominees and executive-branch appointments confirmed.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.