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Cost Of Battling Filibuster Rules: No Sleep Or Fundraising

When Senate Democrats voted last month to limit the minority party's ability to filibuster most presidential nominees, inside-the-Beltway hand-wringing commenced.

The Senate would never be the same without a 60-vote threshold on controversial matters! Just wait and see the dysfunction! The retribution!

Gregory Koger, historian and pre-eminent expert on the filibuster, was not among the doomsayers.

He told us that he saw the so-called nuclear option as a natural reaction by a frustrated Senate majority. And that it would not have much effect on a badly divided chamber already hobbled by a filibuster-by-threat culture.

After this past week in the Senate — late-night sessions marked by bickering, and blame-gaming as Democrats held majority-rule votes for long-delayed presidential nominees — we wondered what Koger thought now of the filibuster change.

Here's what the author of Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate had to say:

NPR: How much of what is happening now do you attribute to the change that no longer requires a 60-vote supermajority to end a filibuster?

Koger: The Republicans would say that a lot of what they're doing is a reaction to the change — deliberately dragging out debate as an expression of dismay at how the Democrats changed the rules of the Senate without Republican consent. What we're really seeing is the Democrats challenging the Republicans' underlying ability to drag out the nominations process.

NPR: Has it been worth it for Democrats?

Koger: One of the changes is that it's now worthwhile for Democrats to go through this exercise because they know they can win. Before, the Democrats didn't have the 60 votes necessary to win debates on the nominations, and didn't want to go through this exercise and lose. Certainly it's worth it to the president and the Senate Democrats to approve these nominees — in particular, those that will give them a working majority on the D.C. Circuit Court, which is essential to them.

NPR: There was a detente of sorts today [Friday], and agreement to move scheduled weekend votes to Monday. There also seemed to be increased optimism that the Senate would approve a budget deal, already passed in the House. Does that mean that Republicans have decided they've made their point? What happens next week when they all come back?

Koger: The reason the Senate stopped having filibusters-by-attrition is that, for the majority, it's very costly to waste time in the chamber. This has been a bit of a demonstration of that idea. Republicans have been exercising their prerogative to claim a certain amount of time after each successful cloture [test] vote, dragging out debate. The majority has said, "Fine, but you have to talk all night." Once they actually live that out for a few days, they realize it is disruptive — they're not getting as much sleep as they want. They're not able to fundraise. If they had to legislate 10 hours a day, their lives would be ruined. And losing a weekend? For Democrats in tough races back home, for [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell, who is facing a primary challenge? That would be very costly.

NPR:What do you think Republicans learned this week?

Koger: The minority doesn't have as much power as they thought they did. Any actions they take, there's a rebound. The minority has to pay costs, too, and that brings about detente.

NPR: What happens when the Senate returns next week?

Koger: The legislation that comes up next week will be interesting — it will be interesting to see how open a process there might be on the defense authorization bill. Right now, you can't offer any amendment unless [Majority Leader] Harry Reid gives permission. It will be an interesting thing to watch if you want to know what a post-nuclear Senate is going to look like.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.