Senate Republicans open door to weakening the filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnell9/11 bill is a global blunder that will weaken US efforts abroad States urged to bolster election security How the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill MORE (R-Ky.) is opening the door to changing the filibuster in response to growing pressure from Republicans angered that Democrats have blocked legislation from reaching the White House.

McConnell has appointed a special task force to explore changes to the filibuster rule and other procedural hurdles — including whether to eliminate filibusters on motions to proceed to legislation. That’s a tactic the minority often uses to shut down a bill before amendments can be considered.

ADVERTISEMENT
McConnell has tapped his close ally, Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell: Cures bill a 'top priority' in lame-duck Lawmakers pledge push for cures bill in lame-duck Overnight Regulation: Lawsuits pile up against Obama overtime rule MORE (R-Tenn.), and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to form a task force with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and two other freshmen to weigh various reforms. They hope to implement the changes at the start of next year.

“We’re going to take a serious look at whether Senate rules ought to be changed in order to make the Senate work more effectively,” Alexander said.

“A number of the new senators have come in looking around saying, ‘Why are we doing things this way and not that way,’ ” he added.

The other two members of the task force are Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Both McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) have come under pressure in recent years to change the filibuster, which requires the Senate to have 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles.

After last year’s midterm elections, Republicans held majorities in both the House and the Senate, where the GOP has a 54-46 advantage.

The GOP hoped the new majorities would allow Republicans to send conservative legislation to the White House, which would at least force President Obama to use his veto pen.

Instead, bills have been bottled up by Senate Democrats, and Obama has only vetoed one piece of legislation this year — a measure to build the Keystone pipeline.

Frustrated House Republicans joined by a GOP presidential candidate and freshmen senators are clamoring for change.

“At times, the rules and practices of the Senate have left Americans and members of the Senate deeply frustrated. Senate systems that should serve the nation are currently blocking debate and slowing progress, instead of promoting it,” said Lankford. 

McConnell, a Senate traditionalist, doesn’t want to do away with the filibuster. He and other Republicans fear a decision to gut the filibuster further would boomerang on the party — especially if Democrats retake the Senate in next year’s elections.

But McConnell and his allies have taken note of the growing pressure, especially after Republicans were unable to block funding for Planned Parenthood or stop President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a GOP presidential candidate, called on the Senate last month to junk the filibuster in order to pass resolution disapproving the Iran deal with a simple majority.

“I think they ought to go to the nuclear option in the United States Senate,” he said, referring to a controversial procedure for changing the Senate rules with a simple majority vote.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday the difficulty of passing bills in the Senate has caused frustration to boil over in the House.

“That’s the primary cause of the division in the House is the filibuster in the Senate,” he said. 

McConnell publicly dismissed the criticism last month.

“We appreciate all the good advise we're getting from members of the House of Representatives and candidates for president about how to run the Senate,” he told reporters. “That'll obviously be a decision we'll make ourselves.”

But the issue came up within the Senate Republican conference recently when freshman Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) asked during a meeting what could be done to get more bills moving, according to a Senate GOP source who attended.

A spokeswoman for Daines did not respond to a request for comment.

One senior senator said freshmen are pushing to get rid of the filibuster on the motion to proceed, which Democrats have deployed to block spending bills this year.

The chamber’s old bulls pushed back by warning that Republicans would regret curbing or eliminating the filibuster once Democrats regained the majority.

Alexander, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) delivered floor speeches defending the status quo.

“The framers designed the Senate to serve as a necessary fence against the fickleness and passion that drives hasty law making,” Hatch, the Senate’s most senior Republican, reminded his newly arrived colleagues.

Alexander notes that since World War II, Democrats have controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress for 22 years while Republicans have only had such a lock on power for six years.

“There’s a lot of talk. There’s some talk in the presidential debate about the filibuster and there’s some talk from members of the House of Representatives about it. So I thought. and I guess Sen. Hatch and Grassley thought. it was a good time to remind people of the importance of what makes the Senate unique,” he said.

But even Alexander is beginning to shift his position.

In 2011 and 2013, when he negotiated rules reform with New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, he thought the key to getting things done was to persuade his colleagues to act more civilly. 

He now thinks a rules change is the way to go. 

“I argued at the time that what we needed was a change of behavior more than a change of rules. But I’ve changed my mind about that. And I think the world around us has changed and that the Senate itself has changed and that we probably need a change in rules,” he said.

Still, killing the filibuster on motions to proceed would have a limited effect on the minority, which could still use the filibuster to prevent the majority from ending debate on legislation.

In 2013, Reid and Democrats voted to eliminate the filibuster on most nominations. To do so, they used a legislative maneuver known as the “nuclear option” that allows changes to Senate rules to be adopted by a Senate majority.

Reid and Democrats at the time were frustrated with GOP procedural delays on a string of President Obama’s nominations, and Reid was under pressure from the left. The change did not apply to Supreme Court nominations or to legislation.

Senior Republicans pledge they will not invoke the nuclear option. Any rules change must win Democratic support and 67 votes, the threshold for reforms under regular order, they say. 

“Invoking the nuclear option? That’s not happening,” said a Senate Republican leadership aide.

Alexander said the goal is to implement reforms early next year when neither party will be sure of who will control the Senate after the 2016 election.

“Several senators suggested the way to do it would be to make the changes this Congress to take effect in the next Congress. In other words, do it before we know who’s going to be in the Senate majority,” he said.

Still, the real question for McConnell and his allies may be whether the steps they are planning will be enough to satisfy calls from the right.

And if the GOP wins the White House in 2016 and controls both chambers, the pressure on McConnell to end the filibuster will grow even stronger.