A ‘Watergate baby’ fights the filibuster

On the subject of filibuster reform, Bob Edgar wants the U.S. Senate to do as he says, not as he does. The filibuster is a topic on which Edgar, the national president of Common Cause, can speak endlessly.

"I just want to say one other thing, and then I'll stop," Edgar says over a cup of coffee on a visit to Hartford. Five minutes later, Edgar is still riffing on the filibuster's role in the dysfunctional Senate. "Just one other thing, and I'll stop."

Bob Edgar

Bob Edgar

Edgar, 69, is a former Drexel University chaplain and one-time "Watergate baby," a reformer elected to the U.S. House in 1974 with Chris Dodd, Toby Moffett and other young Democrats.

Dodd now speaks for the movie industry in Washington. Moffet is a successful lobbyist. Edgar still is a reformer, an evangelist preaching these days about Senate Rule XXII, the filibuster.

This is the week when Edgar expects to learn if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is willing to back a return to the old-school rules -- a filibuster that extended debates, not prevented them from starting.

No one actually stages a filibuster any more by taking to the floor of the Senate to talk around the clock about a bill, as James Stewart did to fight a special-interest giveaway in Frank Capra's 1939 classic movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

The filibuster has morphed from a rarely used, physically taxing and highly visible exercise into a common, painless and nearly invisible tool that allows a minority to tie up the Senate.

The mere threat of a filibuster is sufficient in today's Senate, where the Democratic majority lacks the 60 votes to formally end debate and force a vote under current rules.

At a minimum, Edgar wants a senator behind a filibuster to come into the open, stand on the Senate floor and take public responsibility for delaying passage of a bill and tying up the institution with an extended debate.

"It doesn't extend debate. It stops debate, because they use the filibuster at the front end of the process," Edgar said. "We would be happy if they filibustered at the end of the process, if they would stand on the Senate floor and tell the world why they were filibustering."

Connecticut's two Democratic senators, each who rank no higher than James Stewart's Mr. Smith did when he began a filibuster by putting a thermos and some food on his desk, favor reform.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was elected in 2010 to succeed Dodd, said he would abolish the filibuster.

He backs a proposal Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, made two years ago: every three days, the number of votes to end a filibuster would shrink by three votes, so passage would eventually require a simple majority in the 100-seat Senate, not the present 60-vote supermajority.

Failing that, Blumenthal said he would settle for requiring that senators actually have to filibuster by debating.

"The American people assume that when there is a filibuster, people are actually on the floor talking," Blumenthal said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, who succeeded Joseph I. Lieberman this month, said the filibuster has been perverted from the time of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

"I'm comfortable with the filibuster so long as members actually have to filibuster, to stand on the Senate floor and actually argue their case," Murphy said. "That's my version of filibuster reform."

Murphy, who served in the House for six years, said he saw the filibuster turn into a routine parliamentary maneuver that denied a Senate vote on measures that passed the lower chamber, often by huge margins.

"I tend to be more aggressive than some others on filibuster reform, maybe in part because I watched the Senate for the last six years stand as a arrier to a lot of legislation the House passed," he said.

Edgar is circumspect on Reid's commitment to the cause. (Reid gives GOP 36 hours on filibuster.)

The best measure of his faith in Reid is Edgar's backup plan: He is trying to coax Harkin, another Watergate baby, to sue the Senate. Common Cause tried on its own, but was found to lack legal standing by a district court judge.

One impediment to Harkin signing on: The Senate rules forbid a senator from accepting more than $10,000 in legal assistance to sue the Senate. (A senator is permitted to create a trust to raise unlimited amounts to defend himself against charges of impropriety.)

"I'm trying to convince my friend, Sen. Harkin, whom I got elected with as a House member, to do an act of civil disobedience," Edgar said. "Be great to be on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post."

Edgar is an unlikely firebrand. He speaks like a minister offering quiet counsel, not a preacher in the pulpit. Wearing a cardigan sweater over a shirt and tie on a cold winter's day, Edgar said friends refer to his "Mr. Roger's outfit."

He served 12 years in the House, representing what had been a reliably Republican district outside Philadelphia, then he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1986, losing to Arlen Specter, who became a friend.

With no political experience, Edgar decided to run for Congress on Oct. 20, 1973, the day after President Nixon abolished the office of the special Watergate prosecutor, first firing his attorney general, who refused to carry out the order.

He has been the president and chief executive of Common Cause since May 2007, making filibuster reform a focus for much of the past three years.

"Elections should mean something, particularly this last election in '12. And the people who lost the election shouldn't be allowed to control the debate. They should be heard. They should have a right to speak. They should have a right to express their opinions. But there ought not to be the tyranny of the minority."

Minority rule has blocked action on issues ranging from campaign finance disclosure to global warming, he said.

"When Medicare passed in 1965, how many votes do think it got in the United States Senate? It got 55 votes," Edgar said. "If Medicare came up today, it would be filibustered."