Joseph I. Lieberman has taken stock of his last years in office and found them lacking, as he’s watched his biggest legislative priorities fall victim to the same procedural morass that has stymied so much of the Senate’s work in recent years.
So in some final advice to his colleagues, the Connecticut independent says it’s time for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to throw out filibuster rules that allow the minority to block just about anything from coming to the Senate floor.
“The process here can determine too much of ... the results, or lack of results,” Lieberman said during a lengthy interview with CQ Roll Call just before Thanksgiving.
In his ideal Senate, a simple majority of 51 votes would rule for just about everything, he said.
Lieberman suggested that concerns about protecting minority rights, a frequent refrain of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are exaggerated.
“The filibuster supposedly was meant to protect the country from a passion of the moment sweeping irrationally through Congress and being signed by the president,” Lieberman said, in reference to the 60-vote supermajority requirements in current rules. “I can’t remember the last time a passion of the moment swept through a Congress and was signed by the president.”
Though he has not been vocal about it much recently, Lieberman worked with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to reduce the threshold needed to invoke cloture — and thus limit debate — during the 1990s.
“The problem we face is not that things are getting done too quickly, but that they’re not getting done,” he explained.
Lieberman said one of the problems with modern floor operations is exemplified by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s decision to stall action on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill — a scenario Lieberman said could result in the bill failing to pass for the first time in 50 years.
Notably, Lieberman gained significant influence in the Senate in part because of the very rules that he said should go away. During a 2009 debate on what would become President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Lieberman pushed back against a proposed Medicare expansion favored by Democratic leaders, temporarily impeding the bill’s path to Senate passage. At that time, Reid had 60 senators in his conference and needed each and every vote to overcome united GOP opposition.
Despite his own success in using the rules, Lieberman said Reid should not stop at current proposals to end filibusters to motions to proceed, saying those plans are “quite mild.”
“To me, it’s really not the end of reform but just the beginning,” he said.
Lieberman, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, blamed partisan gridlock for preventing him from passing a Postal Service overhaul plan and a cybersecurity bill.
“I mean, both of these are classics of this moment in our American federal government history and politics. These are both real and serious problems,” he said.
Lieberman has a long history of working across the aisle during his 24 years in the Senate, particularly on foreign policy and national security. That he is having trouble making deals underscores the scope of the current dysfunction. But he counts new laws to help fight terrorism in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks among his most significant achievements.
“I was not able to successfully participate in passage of climate change legislation, which would also have been energy independence legislation, and I worked on that for a long time,” Lieberman said. He teamed with several Republicans through the years on ill-fated environmental legislation, including with his friends John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Though he might win cheers from some liberal Democrats for his support of filibuster reform, Lieberman is hardly leaving Congress on good terms with Democrats, with whom he caucuses.
His conservative views on foreign affairs and vocal support for intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan led Connecticut’s Democratic primary voters to reject him in 2006. He subsequently ran in the general election as a third-party candidate and held on to his seat. While he had been the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, the final straw for many Democrats came in 2008 when he endorsed McCain over President Barack Obama.
Lieberman conceded that he did not think about how his endorsement of McCain might affect his ability to get re-elected in 2012. But of course, that issue made the road to re-election that much harder for Lieberman, who decided to retire rather than press his luck.