Filibuster Reform Is Having a Moment. Jeff Merkley Can Take a Lot of the Credit.

Oregon's junior senator has been agitating for changing the system since 2009.

By Julia Silverman March 25, 2021

Has Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley’s crowning moment finally—after more than a decade in Washington, D.C.—arrived?

Ever since Merkley was a brand-new senator, he’s been in the tank for filibuster reform, the time-honored practice of allowing any single senator to kill any proposal with a simple raised hand to signify an objection to voting on the matter. Currently, a filibuster can only be undone by a vote of two thirds of the chamber, or 60 senators—practically unheard of in our partisan times, when Vice President Kamala Harris is regularly called to the chamber to break 50-50 ties.

Unsurprisingly, the presence of the filibuster results in a giant bottleneck at the U.S. Senate, and thus there are frequent calls for its reform. It’s a potentially risky move, however, given how quickly the balance of power can shift in the chamber. If Democrats find themselves in the minority in two years, for example, they might be considerably less enthused about the topic.

Except, perhaps, for Merkley, who has been crusading for reform since 2009, when he arrived in Washington, D.C. as Oregon’s junior senator, during which time control of the chamber has changed hands, but his anti-filibuster crusade stayed constant. (Proof: His Twitter bio reads as follows: Dad, runner, Chief Filibuster Antagonist.)

Exhibit A, this 2012 press release from Merkley’s office, which lays out his support for what he called “the talking filibuster.” Essentially, this requires whichever lawmaker who wants to block a bill to show up on the senate floor to present their case; if they stop talking, things can proceed to a simple up-or-down vote.

Fast forward 11 years, during which Merkley continued behind-the-scenes lobbying for this plan, and you’ll find President Joe Biden himself, speaking to ABC News last week, in support of—you guessed it—the talking filibuster, now with a 2021 shine to it, including the potential that 41 senators would need to remain on the floor and talk around the clock for the filibuster to stand.

Why does this all matter so much? Without having to govern via supermajority, Democrats would be theoretically be able to get much larger pieces of their agenda through Congress and to Biden’s desk, including immigration reform, voting rights, action on climate change, judicial appointments, and even statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

This week, The American Prospect checked in with Merkley about his long journey with filibuster reform, and whether it is finally paying dividends. He’s taking no victory laps yet, but there is a gathering sense that this may finally be an idea whose time has come, despite the vociferous objections raised by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has warned of a “scorched Earth” Senate should Merkley’s version of filibuster reform carry the day.

There’s still work for Merkley to do, including convincing skeptical, middle-of-the-road Democratic colleagues like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema that filibuster reform is the way to go. But if things keep falling his way, he might soon be in need of a new Twitter bio.

Filed under
Show Comments