On the opening day of the formal health care debate, Texas Sen. John Cornyn said Senate rules have created a parliamentary morass. But the real problem is political partisanship.
"Under the Senate rules, we will not be able to change one comma, one sentence, one part of this bill unless we get 60 votes to do so," Cornyn told fellow senators. He was referring to the rule requiring 60 votes to invoke "cloture" and force a vote on a bill, a nomination or an amendment. But it still takes only a majority -- 51 if all vote -- to pass a bill or an amendment.
Rather than the rules, it's the political decision by Cornyn and his fellow Republicans to threaten unlimited debate at every turn that brought the 60-vote requirement into play.
Democrats did the same thing when the GOP controlled the Senate. And it illustrates how intense partisanship stemming from the ideological divide between the parties has crippled our political system.
It's one reason, 34 years after the Senate voted to make it easier for the majority to act, that liberalization remains a major barrier to majority rule. That's hardly what proponents expected in 1975 when they changed the rules to permit 60 of the 100 senators to curb debate.
Initially, it took two-thirds of the full Senate, or 67 votes, to curb debate. That was changed to two-thirds of those present and voting by senators hoping to block Southerners from using unlimited debate to prevent civil rights legislation.
Pressure for further easing grew as senators invoked similar tactics on other measures, and the leadership often responded by putting threatened legislation aside.
Many liberals favored letting a majority limit debate, but they agreed to set the number at 60.
At the time, Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, its co-sponsor, said the action meant "the Senate will be able to deal with the pressing problems of America in 1975. This reform will make the Senate more efficient, more democratic and more effective."
Democrats then held 60 seats, similar to their current majority of 58 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents. But few votes followed straight party lines.
On the 56-27 vote to adopt the 60-vote requirement, 40 Democrats and 16 Republicans formed the majority; 10 Democrats and 17 Republicans were opposed.
Between 1979 and this year, neither party had 60 seats. But as centrists left the Senate and the parties became more homogeneous, the minority found that the 60-vote requirement meant 41 senators could block almost any majority by merely threatening unlimited debate.
One sign: the number of cloture votes soared from four in 1979-80 to over 100 in 2007-08.
One intended purpose of the rule was to force compromises, Mondale said. But "the tremendous cleavage between the Democrats and the Republicans" these days makes compromise impossible and makes the threat of unlimited debate "an indispensable tool" for the minority, he added.
Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted last year in The American that George Washington described the Senate to Thomas Jefferson as "the saucer into which we pour legislation to cool."
But he said that effect has been enhanced by increased use of the rules "as a partisan political tactic to delay and block action by the majority." While some modest rules changes might help, Ornstein added, "the problems here are less the rules and more the culture. And that is not going to change anytime soon."
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.