Yesterday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez announced a sweeping immigration bill that Congress will debate early next year — the first crack at this thorny issue since comprehensive immigration reform died in 2007. Unless Obama’s teetering health care reform package passes soon, both combustible issues will be debated almost simultaneously.

Although once used sparingly, according to the Senate’s own records filibusters have more than doubled over the past 40 years. Its mere threat serves to weaken bills — or discourage certain proposals altogether — since obtaining broad support is decidedly harder than a simple majority.

In the health care debate, the specter of a filibuster has foiled Democratic leaders in the hunt for 60 votes: After quickly dismissing nationalized health care, they whittled down a robust public option into a paltry network of health care exchanges. Recent compromise packages contain no public option at all despite an independent Congressional Budget Office study showing it would save taxpayers billions of dollars per year.


At least health care appears on life support. Immigration reform, however, is no match for the filibuster. The bill legalizes millions of undocumented immigrants — a provision certain to become the “public option” of the immigration debate. As with health care, conservatives will use fear and dubious statistics to claim this proviso will be costly and even harmful — even though both parties agree the immigration system is broken. Thanks to the filibuster, the version destined to pass will mean fewer immigrants willing to work hard and put tax revenue into the treasury’s coffers.

Ending the filibuster is long overdue. The Constitution requires a mere majority of both houses to pass laws, yet the Senate’s Byzantine procedures make this almost impossible. A better proposal is one being floated by Sen. Tom Harkin, which retains the filibuster but only for a month — strong enough to delay a hasty vote but not so obstreperous to postpone landmark legislation, particularly when it could lower health care costs or increase tax revenues.

Besides, if the Senate ever passed anything too radical there’s a provision for that, too: I believe they’re called elections.

– Mark Puleo is co-editor of the Brazilian Journal.

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