Like it or not, the filibuster is here to stay 

In November 2008, just days after Republicans suffered a thorough beating at the polls, former Sen. Fred Thompson spoke to a group of dispirited conservatives on a Caribbean cruise sponsored by National Review. He was asked if he had any advice for his old Republican colleagues in the Senate.

"They need to make sure they get this straight," Thompson deadpanned. "Up until now, filibusters have been a bad thing. Now, filibusters are a good thing."

Everybody laughed, but has anyone uttered a more succinct explanation for why the filibuster lives? Every member of the Senate knows that today's majority is tomorrow's minority, and for that reason most would never, ever, do away with the Senate's strongest protection of minority rights.

But today Democrats are raging against the filibuster, by which minority Republicans can require a 60-vote supermajority to pass some legislation. There are calls to change the Senate's rules to loosen the filibuster's hold, or even to eliminate it altogether.

Some Democrats are already predicting the demise of the filibuster. "I think it will either fall of its own weight -- it should fall of its own weight -- or it will fall after some massive conflict on the floor," Sen. Carl Levin recently told the Huffington Post.

Levin's statement brought guffaws from Republicans. Levin is, after all, the man who for years -- years -- single-handedly blocked the appointment of judges to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers his home state of Michigan, because he was angry over the way the Senate treated a relative of his who had been nominated earlier. And of course, when his party was in the minority, Levin wholeheartedly supported the last major expansion of the filibuster, using it to block an entire slate of Bush administration judicial nominees.

While it's true that a few lawmakers oppose the filibuster on principle, proposing to eliminate it even when it worked in their own favor, most of the new attacks on the filibuster are from Democrats who weren't terribly vocal about the issue when they were in the minority.

But put aside the predictable hypocrisy. This new fight over the filibuster is about just one thing: health care reform.

You often hear Democrats and their boosters in the press complain that under the present system Congress "can't get anything done." But if you go to the White House Web site, you'll find a list of the president's first-year accomplishments -- the Recovery Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, expansion of children's health insurance, and more -- that are all measures passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. They all got done.

So when you hear someone say lawmakers can't get anything done, what they really mean is that Congress can't pass a national health care bill. And because the health care bill -- opposed by a solid majority of Americans for the last six months -- can't pass, the "reformers" in the Senate would blow up the filibuster for the benefit of a single piece of legislation.

But it's not going to happen.

Senate rules make it exceedingly hard to change Senate rules. To modify, or eliminate the filibuster, would require a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes. Even if every Democrat voted for it -- and there is no way that would happen -- that would still mean eight Republicans would have to vote for it too.

Don't hold your breath -- especially in light of a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. The pollsters asked whether the fact that Senate Republicans now have the votes to block Obama's initiatives is a good thing or a bad thing. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said it's a good thing, versus 36 percent who said it's a bad thing. They don't want the GOP to block everything, but they're glad to have a check on Obama's power.

Still, the biggest obstacle to change remains the Senate's collective memory. "I just don't see senators who understand that the roles of majority and minority can flip, and have flipped in the last 20 years or so, taking the bait," says Martin Gold, a Republican expert on the Senate's rules. Since 1981, when Gold worked for then-Majority Leader Howard Baker, control of the Senate has changed in 1986, and 1994, and 2001, and 2002, and 2006. "Lots of people have memories of being on both sides of this question," says Gold.

And that's why the filibuster won't be going anywhere.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on

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