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Filibuster backfire?

Published November 23. 2013 4:00AM

This editorial is excerpted from Bloomberg View.

The Senate finally took action Thursday to diminish the effects of political polarization. It was pretty much a party-line vote.

With 50 Democrats (and two independents) voting in favor and all 45 Republicans (and three Democrats) opposed, the Senate opted to eliminate the filibuster for executive appointments and most judicial nominations. It's a sensible change, as far as it goes. The question is: How far will it go? The filibuster remains available for legislation and Supreme Court nominees. But it's questionable how long even that tradition can last.

The filibuster, intended as a protection of minority rights, has become instead a tool to obstruct majority rule. Reasonable minds - some of them even in the Senate - can disagree about where protection stops and obstruction begins. But there can be little doubt about what happened in recent weeks, when Republicans used it to prevent three qualified nominees from taking the bench in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Republicans complained that President Barack Obama's appointments would shift the ideology on the court. Well, yes, that's one of his prerogatives, isn't it?

The filibuster is a world-class source of frustration. Its most famous service was in the cause of delaying civil rights to American blacks. Yet the filibuster is also emblematic of a Senate culture that, by design and evolution, has afforded the minority party far more power than it is permitted in the House of Representatives.

The loss of the filibuster on nominations takes the Senate one giant step closer to the kind of one-party dominance that characterizes the House. The fear is that it will also inspire similar levels of ruthless partisanship.

It could easily get worse. The next time a single party controls both houses of Congress, the temptation to eliminate the filibuster on legislation will be immense - either as partisan payback from frustrated Republicans or as the culmination of (again, frustrated) majority rule by Democrats.

The march to hyperpartisanship didn't begin this week. And as today's vote illustrates, it won't end anytime soon: The toxins unleashed by mindless filibustering will, paradoxically, be strengthened by the filibuster's demise. But anyone who cares about the American model of constitutional democracy should be working to reduce polarization.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can do more than most. Showing respect for his political opponents in defeat is a starting point.

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