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Deal settles latest filibuster quarrel, but doesn’t prevent misuse in the future

Senators reached a tentative deal on Tuesday, once again avoiding a showdown over the filibuster, an occasionally useful but lately abused rule that allows the minority party to block action in the Senate.

The argument this time was over presidential appointments to administration posts, mainly to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans had refused to allow a vote on President Obama’s 2011 nomination of Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Board and objected to his use of recess appointments to fill slots at the National Labor Relations Board. Those appointments are the subject of a lawsuit that seems headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

With the deal, Cordray’s appointment was approved Wednesday and Buffalo native Thomas E. Perez was approved Thursday as secretary of labor. The nomination of Buffalo-born lawyer Richard F. Griffin Jr. would not move forward nor would those made through the contested recess appointments.

Given the circumstances, it was a reasonable resolution to an unreasonable practice of Senate Republicans to block anything of substance and even some things of lesser importance. This wasn’t a fight over a defense secretary – indeed, the nomination of Chuck Hagel, while controversial, was quickly approved – or some other high-profile Cabinet position. The crisis over the filibuster was prompted by Republican recalcitrance over nominations that most Americans aren’t even aware of.

Because Republicans refused to allow a floor vote on the nominations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had threatened to rewrite filibuster rules as they apply to a president’s nominations to his own administration. That wouldn’t have guaranteed that all nominees would be approved, only that they would get a vote.

It was a logical response to an illogical practice, but Republicans went ballistic – as Democrats have previously when faced with the same threat. That prompted this week’s compromise, brokered largely by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. It was not an unreasonable deal, but the fact is that the filibuster has been misused in the past five years to the point that it violates the spirit of the Constitution.

Indeed, the filibuster is not even a creation of the Constitution, but of the Senate itself, which wished – sensibly enough – to protect political minorities from being steamrolled. But the value of that extra-Constitutional exercise depends mightily on its responsible use. Republicans have been indiscriminate over the past five years, evidenced most recently by the crisis over these nominations.

The problem is that too many Republicans in both houses of Congress will not accept that Obama is president and that, as such, he should be granted the deference that presidents are typically accorded in filling leadership posts within the administration. But Obama did win last November, and in convincing fashion. Republicans may not like his appointments, but Americans elected Obama and that requires some deference, especially on nominees who serve at the pleasure of the president. These aren’t Supreme Court justices with lifetime appointments.

What is even worse is that while Republicans today screech over Democratic threats to curtail the filibuster, they have flat-out promised that if they win control of the Senate next year, they will abolish the filibuster so that Democrats can’t block them from voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. The rank hypocrisy is head-spinning.

There’s a large difference between votes on policy issues and votes on a president’s appointments to his own administration. The former is where the filibuster could be used responsibly to force changes in legislation. The latter is juvenile. Is it any wonder Americans despise Congress?