Sen. Amy Klobuchar is part of a group of first-term Democrats that want to make it tougher to filibuster in the Senate.

By JEREMY HERB, Star Tribune

Arguing that the Senate game has become unfair, Sen. Amy Klobuchar wants to change the rules.

Klobuchar is part of a group of first-term Democratic senators who want to make it tougher to stall bills on the Senate floor through use of the filibuster, which allows a single senator to hold up legislation by threatening to a bout of prolonged speechmaking.

When the U.S. Senate convenes on Wednesday, the group -- led by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall -- will introduce a bill that would force senators to come to the floor to talk during a filibuster. The bill would also end senators' ability to anonymously place a hold on nominees seeking confirmation.

Klobuchar follows in the footsteps of former U.S. Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale, who helped tighten Senate filibuster rules three decades ago. Mondale, who as a senator led the effort to lower the number of senators needed to break a filibuster from 67 to 60, has jumped in the fray this time as well, writing a recent New York Times opinion piece that called for lowering the number once more to 55. "The filibuster need not be eliminated, but it must no longer be so easy to use," he wrote.

Currently 60 senators are needed to break a filibuster, a tactic for blocking legislation in the upper chamber made famous by the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Democrats aren't planning to drop the number of senators needed to break a filibuster. But like the movie, Klobuchar said she and her colleagues want to make senators talk during a filibuster rather than just use the threat of one to stop bills from advancing.

"We have seen for a number of years that people are playing games with the rules," Klobuchar said. "When people start abusing it by secretly holding bills and secretly holding nominations and judges, you have a problem."

Republicans call it a power grab

Republicans call the Democratic proposal to change filibuster rules a power grab that would prevent the minority from being heard. "For two years, Democrats in Congress have hoped their large majorities would make it easy for them to pass extremely partisan legislation," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in the Washington Post. "Now that they've lost an election, they've decided to change the rules rather than change their behavior."

The filibuster was used more than ever this past Congress, but Republicans say that's because Democrats often didn't allow them to amend bills.

Lingering over the debate is the fact that any rule changes that Democrats make now to help them pass bills could come back to haunt them should they lose the majority in 2012 or beyond. Back when Republicans last controlled the Senate, for instance, Democrats objected to Republican proposals to enact the so-called "nuclear option" to stop filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominees.

Klobuchar said the proposal will be acceptable to senators whether they are in the majority or minority. "A number of us just decided our main goal is to make this work better, and that's why we have proposed a set of reforms that we think works no matter where you are," she said. "It makes it less possible for just one or two people to gummy up the works."

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who temporarily gave the Democrats a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in 2009, "strongly supports reforming Senate rules to improve the functioning of the body," said spokesman Ed Shelleby.

A long 'first day'

Udall plans to introduce the proposed filibuster rule changes on the first day of the new session Wednesday. Without an agreement with the GOP, however, Democrats plan to use a procedural tactic to stretch the "first day" over several weeks. Udall wants to maintain the option of passing the rule changes with a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote, which he argues is allowed because the Constitution says Congress sets its rules at the beginning of a new Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada plans to use a procedural tactic to keep the Senate's "first day" in session beyond Wednesday, giving Democrats time to reach a compromise before the Senate reconvenes Jan. 24 -- but also retaining the ability to pass the rule changes by a simple majority vote because it would still technically be the first day.

Such a move would likely enrage Senate Republicans. But Klobuchar said she was hopeful there would be a bipartisan agreement, "given that we were able to work things out in the lame duck on a number of much more difficult issues."