Santa Fe New Mexican: Filibuster fight puts Sen. Udall in national spotlight

Reposted from The Santa Fe New Mexican. January 12, 2014

By Anne Constable

Last week’s confirmation of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve was a victory for Senate reformers. Among them is New Mexico’s Tom Udall, who in recent months has emerged as an unlikely hero to those pushing to end partisan gridlock in Washington over the president’s nominees.

Udall, 65, is known as a hardworking, unflamboyant and popular first-term senator with a famous name in the environmental world.

But his success in helping push through filibuster reform, which may help ease years of partisan backlogs on presidential appointments — as well as the strong positions he has taken on the war in Syria, government surveillance and other issues — has helped propel him in recent months onto the national stage, or at least close to it.

“I think Tom Udall’s more forceful stances have increased his national standing and national prominence,” said Brian Sanderoff of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc.

“Clearly, his stature has benefited,” agreed Jeff Bingaman, a fellow Democrat who served 26 years as a senator from New Mexico before stepping down a year ago.

In November, Senate Democrats deployed the so-called “nuclear option,” reducing the number of votes needed to end a filibuster on a presidential nomination to a simple majority and speeding Yellen’s confirmation.

Commenting on Monday’s vote, Udall said in a news release he was “pleased that our efforts to reform Senate rules allowed a swift up-or-down vote on Dr. Yellen and that “the Senate is now able to do its job with respect to nominees.”

Udall has been pushing for filibuster reform since he was elected to the Senate in 2008 and called this “the most significant change” in Senate rules since 1975, when the upper chamber reduced to 60 from 67 the number of votes needed to end debate and proceed to a formal vote.

It is one of a number of reforms proposed by Udall and other Senate colleagues.

The change, he said in a recent interview, “means the majority can’t be blocked” and that the president can get an up-or-down vote on his nominees. It is, he added, “a good thing for democracy” and a “return to the Constitution,” which reserves supermajorities for actions such as ratifying treaties and expelling members.

To Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based national association of more than 100 organizations, filibuster reform “certainly raised his profile nationally and gives grass-roots organizations around the country a lot to be hopeful for.”

On the other hand, it’s still clear that a junior senator from a small Western state has a long way to go before becoming a true celebrity. Stu Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, said in an email, “Count me skeptical that any except the most liberal and fervent Democratic activists outside [New Mexico] have any idea who he is or what he has done. I don’t think he has a national profile, but I have no data to give you a definitive answer.”

Standing up

In September, Udall stood up to the president, voting against a resolution authorizing military action in Syria in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. He said he believed the resolution could further involve the U.S. in a Syrian civil war and that the U.S. had not exhausted all diplomatic possibilities. The resolution still passed the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, of which he is a member, but his stand won him a spot on NBC’s prominent Sunday morning news show, Meet the Press, and on National Public Radio.

Udall, who voted against the USA Patriot Act in 2001, when he was a member of the House of Representatives, also has long pushed for reforms to end the bulk collection of private records of ordinary citizens. He has fought for reforms of U.S. surveillance programs and the secret courts created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and is supporting the USA Freedom Act, which provides more safeguards for phone records and warrantless surveillance.

The son of Stewart Udall, a former secretary of the Department of the Interior, he has plenty of environmental chops. Columnist Eleanor Clift of the Daily Beast described him as a “lonely climate-change crusader,” and added that not since Al Gore “has Washington heard a politician so impassioned about global warming.”

He’s also gotten some national press for his support of improving standards for youth football helmets.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a “big consumer of TV news shows,” said he has noticed Tom Udall “taking a higher visibility role.”

“Party affiliation matters most of all in determining views and votes, of course, but most Americans like to see their senators in the fray, standing up and being counted,” Sabato wrote in an email. “It especially helps first-term senators like Udall, many of whom are invisible and rarely asked to appear. Being a Udall doesn’t hurt. It’s a well-known name, and Stewart and Mo [Udall’s uncle, both former members of Congress] still have many friends in politics and the news media.”

Why reform is needed

Senate filibusters used to be reserved for extreme circumstances. But in today’s vitriolic Washington climate, they are employed frequently, by both parties, consuming hundreds of hours of lawmakers’ time and causing multiple bottlenecks in the Senate. There have been more of them since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980, according to Tom Udall.

One federal judge waited 659 days, Udall said. Some nominees just got so frustrated they gave up.
In contrast, Udall said that when his father became secretary of the Interior Department during the John F. Kennedy administration, the elder Udall had virtually his entire team in place two weeks later. (Of course, today there are about 1,600 political appointees who require Senate confirmation, compared to about 400 during his father’s day.)

Today, presidents wait months, if not longer, for their choices to various agencies to be confirmed.
They were rare when Bingaman was elected in 1982, he confirmed. But “in recent years, they’ve become pretty routine. It’s become a normal requirement that the minority imposed on the majority in the Senate.”

Holding up nominations is “denying the right of the president to fill judicial vacancies, which he has the right to do under the Constitution,” Bingaman said.

“If he can’t get 51 votes, they ought to be turned down,” he said. “But he should not have to get 60 votes to get someone approved.”

Abuse of the filibuster is delaying justice, Aron contends. “Courts without judges means that everyday Americans have little or no recourse to resolve basic problems. … Judicial decisions govern our lives. When you don’t have judges, individuals have to wait months, sometimes years to get some justice,” she said.

Previous efforts at reform by Udall, along with Senate colleagues Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, fizzled.

What broke the logjam last fall was widespread concern over the backlog of appointments to the federal bench, including the critical D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and to some key agencies.
The new Senate rule requires only a majority to end a filibuster on nominations to the lower judiciary and to departments and agencies of the federal government for which the president must seek the advice and consent of the Senate. It does not apply to nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court or to ordinary legislation.

In November, the members voted 59-34 to end formal debate on Yellen’s nomination and proceed to a vote, which took place on Jan. 6, the first day of the second session of the 113th Congress.

Also, before Congress adjourned in December, 16 nominees were confirmed under the new rule, including two for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — Patricia Millet and Nina Pillard. (The nomination of a third judge for the D.C. Circuit, Robert Wilkins, is still pending.)

Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, was quoted recently as saying the Republicans brought the reform on themselves by their “open decision to block the president from filling vacancies for his entire term, no matter how well qualified the nominees. It was a set of actions begging for a return nuclear response.”

Republicans in the Senate are still dragging out the process, both Udall and Bingaman said, by forcing the Democrats to use up all the time for post-cloture debate — up to 30 hours — set aside for specific nominations. ”They ran every single hour to the end of the Congress,” Udall said. “We burned almost two weeks just on nominations.”

At the end of the session on Dec. 31, there were still about 250 nominations sent back, meaning that the president has to resubmit them in the second session of the 113th Congress.

Staying the course

Udall said the filibuster was already slowing things down when he was watching from his seat in the House of Representatives (1999-2009). After he was elected to the Senate (on a slogan saying that the Senate is the “graveyard of good ideas”), his father, he said, suggested he reread the autobiography of Clinton Anderson, a former U.S. representative from New Mexico (1941-1945), U.S. secretary of agriculture (1945-1948) and U.S. senator from New Mexico (1949-1973).

Anderson, Udall said, called for filibuster reform at the beginning of every Congress. “He worked at it his entire career but never really saw any change.”

Udall hoped for more success. Filibuster reform was the subject of his first speech on the Senate floor, and he’s been working on it ever since.

By the time the Senate voted on the nuclear option, there were more than 90 vacancies on the federal bench and dozens of executive branch nominees stalled in the Senate because the Democrats did not have the 60 votes to invoke cloture, and Republicans were blocking even nominees they considered well qualified for the positions.

Udall said he began meeting with senators from his party to talk about reform. The longest-serving senators were opposed, he said, while Republicans declined to join the conversations.

But he, Harkin and Merkley came up with a set of reforms that included, in addition to nominations, eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed, as well as on motions to move Senate-passed bills to conference negotiations with the House, reduce post-cloture debate and do away with secret holds, where one senator objects on behalf of another.

“They simply didn’t give up, even when those in their own party refused to go along,” Aron said. “They kept pushing and pressuring and speaking out. They are the real heroes, and I don’t say that lightly. Not many of these guys are heroes.”

Eventually, Majority Leader Harry Reid started talking to the 55-member Democratic caucus (53 Democrats and two independents) about the need for reform, but he did not think there were enough votes to pass the entire package.

Udall is still hoping to win approval of the talking filibuster rule, either this year or at the start of the next Congress, which begins in 2015.

He believes it would “force transparency and openness” because it would require senators who filibuster to actually speak on the floor. (Think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)

“The problem is now that you don’t have to keep talking. You just put in a quorum call. It’s a way to play havoc with the process,” Bingaman said.

“Clearly there is a case to be made that if the Senate wants to debate at length on an issue of great importance, it should have the right to do so,” he acknowledged. “But in the final analysis, there ought to be an opportunity for the Senate to vote and the majority should control.”

As for the “heroes” who stuck it out, Aron said, “They really represent a very promising group of junior senators who one day will be in the leadership.”