MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And Im Robert Siegel.
Sixty is a fact of life in Washington these days. If legislation is going to pass it had better have 60 of the 100 senators willing to cut off debate and permit a vote on it. It takes 60 votes to achieve cloture. And depending on which side of the aisle youre seeing it from, the 60-vote cloture hurdle has either made the Senate dysfunctional and incapable of legislating or its made it the guardian of minority concerns, in this case the concerns of Republicans.
Ira Shapiro is a former Senate staffer, later a Clinton administration official and now a Washington lawyer who has written about the Senate a great deal. And first Ira Shapiro, just to validate or dismiss a widely held impression, are Senate Republicans in fact forcing a lot more cloture votes now than ever before?
Mr. IRA SHAPIRO (Lawyer, Former Clinton Administration Official): Robert, its clear that since the Senate went back to Democratic control, there has been a large spike in cloture votes. They are much higher since 2006 than they had ever been before, and by orders of magnitude higher.
SIEGEL: Orders of magnitude, meaning you used to get how many cloture votes?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Used to be you would have seven or eight in a Congress and now you can have as many as 80 in a year. Its a fundamental change. And frankly put me among those who think it is making the Senate dysfunctional.
SIEGEL: When you were working in the Senate initially the rules were different about filibusters.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, the rules changed in 1975. It used to be you needed two thirds of the Senate who were present. Then it changed to three fifths of the full Senate, 60. But when I was there, there really were filibusters occasionally that were regarded as valid filibusters. In 1978, labor law reform was a fierce filibuster. And the pro-labor side did not win, the opponents won. But it was regarded as a legitimate exercise in the way the Senate did business.
SIEGEL: Youve written glowingly about those old days in the Senate, filibusters and all. What was fundamentally different about the Senate of the 1960s or 70s than the Senate of the 21st century?
Mr. SHAPIRO: First it was made up of people who were committed first and foremost to the country and the national interest. And second, they were committed to the Senate as an institution. What that meant was they had strong individual views, but ultimately recognized the need to reconcile those views either by compromise or to get on and vote. They won fights and they lost fights.
SIEGEL: Recently when Ive talked to voters in Texas and in Florida, I have heard it said with great bitterness that so-and-so, that senator, hell do anything to get a bill, instead of standing up for what he believes in. And the idea of being willing to compromise is something that, for example, alienated a great many conservatives from John McCain. They thought he was too willing to deal. Do you think we've - our sense of what is virtuous in a legislator has changed over the decades?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, between the 24-hour media and the demands of fundraising, I think it is much more difficult culture and I would never suggest otherwise. But I still believe that there is respect for people that stand up for what they believe in and show independence. Certainly there were critics of Senator McCain for his independent streak but as I recall he was nominated for president. So, if you look at the great senators, what you see is standing for principle, sometimes principled compromise but other times willing to fight and win or lose.
SIEGEL: Youre describing a Senate that does not sound like a place thats likely to create many future great senators just given the way it operates.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, I think thats right. I mean, one of the interesting things is, I believe there are a number of senators now who are fine senators. But its difficult to be a great senator without a great Senate. I just came from Senator Mathiass memorial service and he was
SIEGEL: Charles Mathias was a Maryland Republican, a very liberal Republican from the state of Maryland.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Vice President Biden spoke eloquently about what he meant to the Senate but also what Biden had learned from Mac Mathias. And when Ive interviewed senators they have told me what they learned, what Weicker learned from Javits, what Howard Baker from Ribicoff. The senators held themselves to a very high standard and it inspired those of us who were staff but it also inspired the new senators.
SIEGEL: Ira Shapiro, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Thank you so much, Robert.
SIEGEL: Washington lawyer Ira Shapiro, former Senate staffer Ira Shapiro who is working on a book about the history of the Senate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.