By David Thornton
Implying that the Senate should go nuclear once again and completely eradicate the filibuster rule. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was quick to respond.
“That will not happen,” McConnell told The Hill and other reporters as he rejected the president’s idea out of hand.
The filibuster, originally a Dutch term for pirates, goes back to the early days of the Senate per the Senate website. The filibuster was well established by 1841 when Henry Clay (Whig-Ky.) threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to vote to end debate. Clay was rebuked by Thomas Hart Benton (Democratic-Republican- Mo.) for his attempt to stifle the Senate’s tradition of unlimited debate.
The Senate did weaken the filibuster in 1917 when adopted Rule 22 which established a cloture vote. A vote of two-thirds of the Senate could end debate on a bill. The filibuster reached its current form in 1975 when the number of votes required for cloture was reduced to 60.
“There is an overwhelming majority on a bipartisan basis not interested in changing the way the Senate operates on the legislative calendar,” McConnell said, adding that the move would “fundamentally change the way the Senate has worked for a very long time. We’re not going to do that.”
Removing the filibuster is tempting for some Republicans due to the slim GOP majority in the Senate. With only 52 Republican senators, at least eight Democrat votes are required for cloture on most bills. The need for cloture is a roadblock to much of the Republican reform agenda. In particular, Democrats are united against the repeal of Obamacare.
Nevertheless, elimination of the filibuster would be a double-edged sword that Republicans may soon regret. Over the past 100 years, the Democrats have controlled the Senate more than Republicans and the filibuster has enabled the GOP to halt Democrat action on many issues from gun control to cap-and-trade to public option health care. Without the filibuster, there would be no fail-safe the next time that Democrats hold a congressional majority.
“The rules have saved us from a lot of really bad policy,” said Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I know we all are into short-term gratification, but it’s a real mistake, I think, from a legislative standpoint.”
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) agreed. “Had we not had the filibuster, this country would have been gone a long time ago, gone straight to socialism,” he said on CNN.
Last month, Senate Republicans eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, but a majority of senators say that further rule changes are unlikely. A bipartisan group of 61 senators sent a letter last month to Senate Leaders McConnell and Schumer (D-N.Y.) stating opposition to further changes. The Hill reports that Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have announced that they would oppose further changes. With two GOP senators already standing against elimination of the filibuster, any further defections would doom the plan.
For now, the filibuster appears safe, but pressure from the conservative base continues to mount and angry voters are urging Republicans to get things done with their majority. As frustration over Democrat obstructionism increases, calls to eliminate the filibuster will likely increase as well.