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April 24, 2014

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Filibuster: Democrats will miss it when it’s gone

No actor knew Armageddon like Charlton Heston. From the nocturnal zombies of “Omega Man” to the nutritional nightmare of “Soylent Green” to the post-apocalypse world in “Planet of the Apes,” Heston saw it all. So it was natural to wonder how he would have reacted as Harry Reid detonated the “nuclear option” on the Senate floor last month and laid waste to the filibuster. The physical damage may not compare with the visual drama of those science fiction classics, but it’s not hard to find a few parallels.

In each of those films, the seeds of ultimate destruction were sown when choices were made without any recognition of the devastating costs that future generations would bear. Reid lacks that foresight, too. In the short term, changing the Senate rules makes his life easier. He’s 74, and he’ll likely retire before the full scope of the damage becomes clear. But the long-term consequences will be quite real. Eliminating the filibuster will make the Senate more partisan and less substantive — in short, more like the House of Representatives.

For nearly 225 years, the principle of open and unlimited debate has worked well in the U.S. Senate. Yes, there has always been plenty of pontificating and histrionics; and deliberation can be painstakingly slow. That, however, is by design. The Senate was meant to balance the impulsive nature of the House and put all states on equal footing. An open debate and amendment process encourages consensus and protects against the tyranny of the majority.

But as majority leader, Reid has been a unique and fierce opponent of open debate. Yes, of course Democrats claim Republicans have mounted a “record” number of filibusters, but Reid’s machinations behind the scenes tell a different story. Scheming to avoid tough votes for vulnerable Democrats, he has repeatedly called bills to the Senate floor, blocked all amendments, and immediately moved to cut off debate. Republicans of every stripe have opposed these “cloture” votes, in the belief that an honest, fair process demands the right to offer amendments.

Reid and his supporters argue that the new rule change limiting the filibuster will apply only to certain presidential nominations. At best, that’s wishful thinking. More likely, it reflects supporters’ naivete, ignorance of history, or plain sophistry. By excluding Supreme Court nominees, they concede that there is no principle at stake here — just political expediency. In all likelihood, Democrats didn’t have 51 votes within their caucus to make the change for the Supreme Court, so they just took what they could.

In just the same way, a future Senate majority, Democratic or Republican, will take what it can, eventually eliminating the filibuster for legislation and Supreme Court nominees as well. We will be left with a Senate ruled at all times and everywhere by a simple majority vote. Bipartisanship will be unnecessary, a mark of weakness rather than strength. Lost amid the rubble will be the center, the concept of coalition building, and the need for compromise.

Under a Republican majority, I led several efforts to stop legislation using the filibuster. In one case, a major energy bill included unnecessary subsidies and legal protections for gasoline additives such as ethanol and MTBE. In another, we stopped action on the Patriot Act because it contained inadequate protection for civil liberties. In both cases, our bipartisan coalition forced revisions and changes to the bills that ultimately passed Congress.

Reid’s reckless rule change presents us with a future where coalitions like that are unlikely if not impossible. Limited chances for bipartisan success, coupled with a dominant majority, will make it far less likely that members stray from the party line at all. That behavior is already the norm in the House, where rules severely limit the ability of members to offer amendments and debate at length — the very same changes invoked by the nuclear option. It’s truly ironic that Democrats protesting the partisanship in the Senate have responded by making the institution more partisan than ever.

Until the release of “Planet of the Apes,” science fiction films routinely gave their characters one last shot at redemption. Catastrophe could be avoided if they simply chose to mend their ways. Departing from that formulaic tradition, Heston’s final scene confronting a crumbling Statue of Liberty captures the anguish and bitterness of someone who realizes there is no going back: “You maniacs ... you blew it up!”

This may not be the epitaph that Senate Democrats hoped for, but that’s exactly what they’ve done.

John Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Boston Globe.

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