Bid to end senators' 'secret holds' advances

McClatchy NewspapersJune 17, 2010 

WASHINGTON — In the Senate, every man or woman can be king.

Each can hold up a billion-dollar spending bill on a whim, or block one of the president's nominees from ever getting a hearing.

Whether they're in the majority or minority doesn't matter. They also don't even have to explain why. But the best part of all?

They never have to admit that they did it.

So blame Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri if pretty soon it's just not as much fun as it used to be.

McCaskill, a first term Democrat, apparently has persuaded enough of her colleagues to back her effort to take the "secret" out of the Senate's practice of secret holds.

If her bill gets to the floor, which is appearing more likely since every Democrat supports it, plus enough Republicans to grease passage, no senator would be able to block on a nomination or a piece of legislation without leaving fingerprints.

McCaskill cautioned that it was too early to start tossing confetti.

"We have 67 people who said they want to abolish the rule," she said. "Now we have to translate 67 people into 67 votes. I haven't been here very long, but long enough to know this is going to be the hard part."

Indeed, she intends to continue her hunt for more supporters so she has "some wiggle room in case some senators get cold feet."

Senate watchers and open government advocates said that eliminating the secret holds would be a significant step toward reform.

"They're a serious detriment to transparency," said Paul Blumenthal, senior writer for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. "Citizens across the country should know not only who's sponsoring a bill, but who's blocking it from coming to the floor."

The thing about the practice, though, is that you won't find it written down anywhere.

"I don't think the word even appears," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. "It's obviously a very powerful instrument used by every senator. It gives them a lot of influence over the administration and gives them individual clout."

He also said that "it is something that has been abused."

The Senate is often described as an elite club resistant to change. It's every bit the museum, from the historic portraits that decorate the walls and antique desks — with inkwells — inside the chamber, to the rules and practices that it follows.

It wasn't until 1917 that the Senate passed a rule to cut off debate. Senators could talk on and on. In 1929, it was still voting on nominations and treaties behind closed doors. Television didn't arrive until 1986.

But even for all of it loyalty to tradition, Ritchie said that when change finally does come, the Senate embraces it.

He recalled that a former Senate parliamentarian, Floyd Riddick, once said, "The rules of the Senate are perfect. And if they change every one of them, the rules will be perfect."

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