Sen. Harkin On Filibuster: 'We've Got To Change These Rules'

Nov 20, 2013
Originally published on November 20, 2013 6:57 pm
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One Senate Democrat who is enthusiastic about filibuster reform is Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of next year. Senator Harkin, welcome to the program once again.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: Hey. Nice to be with you, Robert. Thanks.

SIEGEL: You've said you've waited 17 years for changing the filibuster rule. Is there room still, though, for another agreement with the Republicans about somehow limiting resort to the filibuster on nominations rather than banning that weapon?

HARKIN: Well, I don't know. We've got to change these rules. It's gotten to the point where the Senate simply can't function. And quite frankly, it's been both sides, I would admit that, but the majority of it has been on the Republican side lately. And if we don't change the rules, the Senate will simply be unable to do anything.

SIEGEL: Well, let me put to you a couple of objections to changing the rules that we hear. One of them is the argument what goes around comes around, which is today, it's the Republicans who are frustrating Democrats who have the Senate majority and the White House, but in a couple of years, Democrats might want to resort to some of these tactics with Republicans in charge. What do you say to that?

HARKIN: What I say to that, Robert, is I'm not afraid of democracy. I'm not afraid of majority rule as long as the minority has certain rights, the rights to offer amendments. Not the right to win those amendments, but the right to offer those amendments and to have a debate and a vote on those amendments. I've always felt that way. But I do not believe that the minority has some right to absolutely stop everything.

SIEGEL: But, say, if a Supreme Court nominee came up who would clearly be or was widely assumed to be the fifth vote who would overturn Roe versus Wade, let's say, can't you imagine pro-choice Democrats wanting to, in some way, block that nomination?

HARKIN: Well, I'm sure that they would, a pro-choice Democrat want to block that. But I don't think that pro-choice Democrat should have that absolute right to do that. If people vote for a Republican president that's going to nominate someone to the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, listen, elections should have consequences. People should know, if they're going to vote that way, they better expect the results.

SIEGEL: Another objection to changing the rule is one that's been voiced by Senator Carl Levin, your Democratic colleague in the Senate who, as we've heard, says, if you resort to the so-called nuclear option, you're breaking the rules which require a two-thirds majority to change the rules. I mean, wouldn't that open the door to a variety of rules changes that a party could make with a simple majority?

HARKIN: Well, with all respect to my friend Carl Levin, that is one of the rules of the Senate. Even Senator Byrd, who was a fierce protector of the rules of the Senate...

SIEGEL: The late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

HARKIN: The late Senator Robert F. Byrd. He actually said that, yes, the Senate can change the rules with a simple majority. He admitted that. And it shouldn't even be called a nuclear option. That's not - there's nothing nuclear about it. Now, here's what I say to people, Robert. Why is it so sacred that you have to have 67 votes to change a rule in the Senate?

Let's just say, for example, that one party elected 90 senators one time. Let's say they change the rule to say, from here on out, it takes 90 senators to change the rules. Would that be acceptable? If that's not, why is 67 acceptable? It should be that eventually 51 senators ought to be able to decide what we're going to do here.

SIEGEL: Just one other point that Senator Levin has raised. What about - if there still are filibusters - just requiring people to filibuster and to stay there all weekend long or all night long and hold the floor, as Senator Cruz in his non-filibuster did?

HARKIN: Well, because the way the rules, the way the Senate is set up, you can have basically one or two people filibustering and they don't even have to be here. They can put in a quorum call vote and go off and do different things. Cruz didn't have to do what he did. He was just doing it for showmanship.

But there are so many ways of filibustering without sitting on the floor. And, you know, Robert, I think there's a dirty little secret in the United States Senate that we all know but most of the people in America don't know. A senator has his or her power not because of what we can do but because of what we can stop. And no senator wants to give that power up. We each have to give up that little bit of power for the good of the whole country.

SIEGEL: Well, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

HARKIN: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.