Who says we are a divided nation?

A full 75 percent of Americans tell pollsters they agree when it comes to their opinion of Congress. They disapprove.

Following one of the least productive sessions in history, where storm relief and noncontroversial judicial appointments never received a final vote, the new U.S. Senate has a chance to make a change.

Next week, when the Senate comes back to continue its first day of business (a day kept going since Jan. 2 by a parliamentary maneuver of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.), it will have a chance to reform the filibuster and turn the Senate back into a deliberative body instead of an obstructionist one.

The filibuster, which lets one senator take a principled stand to stop the Senate in its tracks, is a time-honored feature of American government, but it has changed dramatically over the years.

The problem is that it has become too easy to use, and it’s used too often. Instead of the last resort of an individual’s conscience, the filibuster is the default position, stopping debate before it starts.

Thanks to a rule change in the 1970s, a senator no longer has to stand up and control the floor to stop a bill. With a silent filibuster, a senator only has to indicate that he or she wants to delay, and if the other side can’t come up with 60 votes, the bill is as good as dead.

These rules have been in place for some time, but they have never been as abused as they have been in the past few years. There have been more filibusters in the past six years than there were from 1917 to 1988 combined.

A proposal to change this has been proposed by three Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, Tom Udall, of New Mexico, and Tom Harkin of Iowa.

They would replace the current filibuster rule with one that limits the opportunities in the process where a filibuster would be in order. Currently, senators can filibuster a bill before it comes to the floor and on every amendment, in addition to filibustering a final vote.

And the new rule would require a senator who wants to filibuster a bill take the floor and talk to prevent the vote from taking place.

This would make a real difference, drawing attention to who was delaying a bill and why.

A less-attractive alternative is being proposed by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would maintain a minority’s ability to derail a bill’s advancement.

The Senate should not miss this opportunity to reform the filibuster. We urge Maine’s senators to back the more ambitious proposal.

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