THE SENATE last week decided to reform the filibuster process, which has increasingly been used by the minority to gum up the legislative process, bring work to a near halt and bolster the chamber's reputation as a body that talks a lot and does little.
Faced with meaningful reforms, the Senate, or more precisely its majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., flinched. The upshot of the process was some minor changes that may make the Senate marginally more efficient.
The filibuster rule as currently interpreted -- and it is a rule, not anything enshrined in law or the Constitution -- requires a 60-vote supermajority, rather than a simple 50-plus-one majority, to move legislation through the Senate to final passage.
Senators have used the rule to delays hundreds of bills, sometimes to the point where the measures' exasperated backers have simply given up.
At one time, a senator engaged in a filibuster had to hold the floor by speaking continuously, sometimes at epic length -- such as the 24 hours and 18 minutes then-Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina spent in 1957 speaking against a proposed civil rights act.
Now, all a filibuster takes is formal notification to the Senate majority leader that he will need a 60-vote majority on a so-called "cloture vote" to pass a piece of legislation.
Once, the filibuster was rarely used. But in the hyper-partisan atmosphere that has dominated for a decade, senators have seized on it to thwart the majority.
There were 73 cloture votes in the last Congress, 91 in the 2009-2011 Congress, and 112 in the 2007-2009 Congress. Clearly, this was a developing recipe for total paralysis.
Reid, who did not think this way last spring, now thinks the 60-vote margin is worth keeping, but new rules adopted this week will require that it be used more sparingly. For example, it may not be used to stop the progress of a bill through the chamber.
Republicans have agreed not to use the filibuster if Democrats allow them to offer two or more amendments to legislation on the floor. The debate time for nominations to the federal district bench and sub-Cabinet posts has been shortened from 30 hours to two.
The sudden caution about filibuster reform is probably due to the recognition that the majority party may one day find itself in the minority, a position from which the filibuster doesn't look like such a bad idea.