Filibuster reform never comes easy, as Senate Democrats who had hoped to address abuses of the parliamentary procedure on the opening day of the 112th Congress were quickly reminded.
Instead of the quick and efficient reworking of Senate rules that some of the more naïve reformers had hoped for, opening day will not see a change to the filibuster rules that thwarted so many Democratic initiatives in the last Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, effectively blocked action on the reform move by bringing the Senate in and out of session so quickly that no time was available for the rules debate.
That does not mean, however, that the push for filibuster reform is dead.
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a key player in the reform push, said Reid had set a schedule that put the Senate in session "just for a single day this Wednesday and then [arranged for senators to] come back in on the 23rd or 24th."
Will reform come then? Merkley hopes so. "By precedent, by tradition, which weighs heavily in the Senate, and by a certain common sense logic, at the start of a two-year period, you set your rules out at the beginning," the senator says.
But there are certainly no guarantees that the filibuster—or the dysfunctional Senate—will be fixed then.
If anything, history suggests that the struggle could go on longer—perhaps a lot longer.
the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s, reformers battled from Congress to Congress before removing barriers that prevented the advance of civil rights and social-welfare programs that, while broadly supported, could not overcome the opposition of southern segregationists and their conservative allies in the Senate.
One effort—to revise the cloture requirement from a very two-thirds of senators (sixty-seven) to three-fifths (sixty)—began in the mid-1960s and did not succeed until 1975, when Democrat reformers were riding high after sweeping the "Watergate election" of 1974. Even then, recalls former Vice President Walter Mondale, who as a senator from Minnesota led the reform push, the "long negotiations" extended from the seating of the new Senate in early January until March 8, 1975.
Over the months and years, the calls for reform became more frequent and loud. The New York Times moved from caution to regularly editorializing "Against King Filibuster."
"51 members of the Senate have it in their power to advance the cause of responsible democracy by their votes…" the newpaper declared. "The public expects nothing less."
What the public expects, or what it is presumed to expect, will be just as important as the current fight plays out.
During the period between now and January 23 or 24, the debate about the filibuster—a legislative tool once used sparingly but now so common that New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, another reformer, says of the Senate: "We’re, in fact, in a constant state of filibuster"—will intensify.