In a gridlocked Congress, there’s finally reason for a small celebration. Senate Republicans ended their obstruction of President Obama’s nominations to key federal posts when faced with the “nuclear option” of abolishing filibusters.

Credit Harry Reid, the rarely decisive majority leader, with forcing Republicans’ hands. They had blocked nominees to the Department of Labor and Environmental Protection Agency, and to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

We have a do-nothing Congress in which the primary role for Republicans is obstructing the Obama administration. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. And the Senate filibuster — a tradition, not a law, and nothing the Constitution’s framers envisioned —  is a big part of the problem.

In 2009, the outset of the new administration, Republicans forced all 60 Democrats —  an unusually large number from one party — to band together to pass a health care overhaul strikingly similar to previous Republican plans. The current Republican plan, however, is to do nothing and block anyone else’s proposals.

Because the 60 Democrats included such dubious characters as Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the legislation’s managers accepted awkward compromises that weakened the law and made it harder to implement.

There was, for instance, a House-passed requirement for a national insurance exchange. Instead, Senate Republicans insisted on state exchanges — though none voted for the bill — and, when it finally emerged, Republican governors, including Maine’s Paul LePage, scuttled state-run exchanges.

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The entire GOP strategy for 2012, as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell memorably said, was to “make Obama a one term president.”

They failed, and Democrats picked up House and Senate seats.

Undeterred, Republicans began the second Obama term by ratcheting up obstruction. They briefly filibustered nominees for Defense and the CIA, posts normally beyond partisanship. They put holds on the EPA and Labor selections, so Obama is still reassembling his cabinet six months into his second term.

None of these maneuvers included a plausible argument against the nominees. Richard Cordray of the Consumer Protection Agency is a case in point.

Republicans resent that we’ll finally have a consumer advocate worthy of the name. Financial barons call the tune 90 percent of the time, but for Maine’s Susan Collins, that’s not enough. She claimed Congress must control the agency’s budget, which instead is part of the independent Federal Reserve. This comes from a Senate that went four years without passing its own budget.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham was startlingly truthful: “Cordray was being filibustered because we don’t like the law. That’s not a reason to deny someone their appointment. We were wrong.”

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But it took Reid’s power play to change things. How significant is this? We’ll know when the Senate considers Obama’s judicial nominations, including three to the D.C. Court of Appeals that Collins wants to reassign elsewhere.

Reid wouldn’t agree to McConnell’s demand that filibuster reform be shelved. It could be back. Sen. Angus King, who voted against broader reform after taking office in January, said recently he’s surprised at the intense gridlock, and may take another look.

If the filibuster goes, few outside the Senate will miss it. There’s nothing in our government’s design that requires anything but a simple majority for passing legislation, confirming judges, and  assembling a cabinet. If it’s a bad bill, kill it; otherwise, get on with it.

Collins showed a peculiar understanding of a parliamentary device used to extend debate — all the filibuster should be — by suggesting that if the minority party objects to a nominee “to run their favorite program” they should be able block it with 41 votes.

That’s not good government. Elections have to mean something. Otherwise, representative government itself is in question.

The system is far from fixed. On legislation reflecting a strong national consensus, the Senate blocked gun background checks, and the House may kill immigration reform, despite overwhelming Senate approval.

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If there’s a ray of hope, it may have been the pre-vote caucus when 98 senators met for hours in the old Senate chamber.

The Senate rarely does this. It’s so overwhelmed with committee assignments — most senators serve on three, plus subcommittees — that floor speeches are often made to an empty chamber. King said if senators had heard a speech by Tim Kaine, governor during the Virginia Tech massacre, they might have approved background checks, but few did.

Retiring Democrat Max Baucus of Montana said the gathering was a rarity during his 35 years in the Senate: “It was very refreshing. We learned a lot. There should be many more meetings like that. We don’t talk to each other enough.”

At least it’s a start.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at [email protected]


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