The American people have had this naive view of Democracy, namely that majority rules. Thats true from state legislatures to homeowners associations, to middle school elections. But it hasnt been true in the United States Senate, where to get anything passed, the majority has needed 60 votes out of 100.
The reason: because 60 is the magic three-fifths majority needed to stop a filibuster, that parliamentary maneuver made most famous by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Smith was an honest Boy Scout-type of fellow who saw corruption all around him and held up a bad, bad bill by staying on his feet and talking for hours, and hours, and hours.
He won in the end, happy endings and all, but in fact the filibuster usually is not on the right side. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, an avowed segregationist for most of his career, once held the floor for over 24 hours in opposition to a civil rights bill.
The Senate of late has been rather lazy regarding filibusters. Merely the threat is enough to stop legislation cold, even when the majority, currently Democratic, has 51 or 59 votes in favor. If the Senate leader knows there are not 60 votes, the legislation is dead on arrival.
Majority Leader Harry Reid has at last brokered a compromise which, while far from perfect, will at least beat the status quo. Democrats can now proceed without 60 votes, but in exchange they have to give Republicans two amendments. Thats better than nothing, but senators still will not have to be present in the chamber when they want to stop a bill from coming to a vote, and the final vote on a bill still could be filibustered.
Ah, well, changing the rules in Congress is indeed like steering a battleship, and even though Reid would have run a risk that Republicans would turn the tables when and if they gain a majority, he should have pushed to change the rules to majority rules, period and end of story. He got what he could.