Limits on Filibusters Are Already Pervasive ; amid 'Nuclear Option,' Congress Has Already Restricted Rights to Debate and Amendment on Other Matters

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With Congress poised to vote on the so-called nuclear option, one fact has been largely lost amid the debate: Restrictions on the use of filibusters are already in place on a host of matters, from budgets to resolutions granting war powers to the president.

Obviously, the question on the floor this week - judicial appointments - is unique. Democrats are eager to preserve their current ability to stall a vote, especially on nominees to the Supreme Court. And Republicans are just as eager to change the rules so that 51 Senators, rather than 60, can end debate on a nominee.

But the fight over judges is hardly as pure a contest over Senate traditions as many people believe. The use of filibusters to prolong debate, though revered by many as a tool for the Senate minority, has been progressively curtailed in recent years on a host of important issues.

One key reason: A rising belief in official Washington that the only way to get contentious legislation out of Congress is to rein in debate and amendment. The restrictions are also, in part, a holdover from the early 1970s, when a Democratic Congress sought to bolster the power of the legislative branch clout against an "imperial" (and Republican) presidency.

"When we talk about 'unlimited debate' in the Senate, we've already limited that unlimited debate over the last 30 years in a major way," says former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove, now a professor at George Washington University. "We have on the books probably a couple of hundred laws that set up specific legislative vehicles that cannot be filibustered or only amended in a very restricted way."

Consider some big-ticket items now before Congress on which lawmakers have given up their rights to filibuster.

* The Pentagon's 2006 Base Realignment and Closure plan, which proposes closing 180 sites.

* The pending Central American Free Trade Agreement.

* President Bush's proposed $70 billion in tax cuts and $35 billion in mandatory spending cuts, protected by budget reconciliation.

* Drilling in the Arctic Regional Wildlife Refuge. The years- long effort by Republicans to pass this legislation may finally succeed this year, because this time it is protected from filibuster as part of the budget reconciliation.

The first curbs on extended debate came in 1917, after Congress refused to move to a vote on President Wilson's request to arm the merchant marine. Much of the impetus to rein in the filibuster in the 1960s and '70s came from liberal Democrats, whose main experience with extended debate had been as a hammer by conservative southerners to stop civil rights legislation.

"In the 1960s the word filibuster only meant one thing in the Senate, with very few exceptions," explains Mr. Dove. "Successful filibusters were filibusters against civil rights legislation. And if you were going to create an atmosphere in which civil rights legislation would get through more easily, you needed to change the cloture rule" - the votes needed to end debate. …


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