By Alexander Bolton - 06/30/15 02:15 PM EDT
Senate Republicans appear to be closing the door on gutting the filibuster, brushing aside calls from GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Scott Walker to consider lowering the 60-vote threshold for repealing ObamaCare.
Sources close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellCures bill in jeopardy amid drug pricing push Senate Democratic super PAC sets fundraising record Five takeaways from Florida Senate debate MORE (R-Ky.) say there’s virtually no chance he will go along with abolishing the filibuster, something he has strongly criticized in the past.
It’s a point on which McConnell and his frequent antagonist, conservative Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzDemocrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Brent Budowsky: An epic battle for the future of Congress Cruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed MORE (R-Texas), agree. Although Cruz often criticizes McConnell for lacking aggressiveness, he also views abolition of the legislative filibuster as a step too far.
Bush and Walker recently told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt they would support lowering the threshold for major legislation from 60 votes to a simple majority. Curbing the power of the Senate minority would make it easier to repeal and replace ObamaCare in 2017.
The tactic is known as the “nuclear option” because using it is viewed by many as a drastic step that could permanently change how the chamber functions. By invoking it, McConnell could change Senate precedent unilaterally with the support of 50 Republican colleagues, instead of having to muster the 67 votes necessary to change the rules under regular order.
Senate GOP sources say that’s not likely to happen.
“He’s consistently said we ought not to do that for legislation,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.
When asked whether McConnell is likely to change his mind, Stewart said: “He hasn’t.”
Cruz told Hewitt Monday that scrapping the filibuster would likely lead to an expansion of government by making it easier to pass sweeping initiatives through Congress.
“I believe ending the legislative filibuster would ultimately undermine conservative principles, because, if you look historically, there have been three major periods where you have had Democratic supermajorities,” he said.
He noted Democratic supermajorities passed the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Great Society under President Lyndon B. Johnson and ObamaCare under President Obama.
“I think the legislative filibuster, the supermajority requirement in the Senate, more often than not slows bad liberal, radical ideas that I think, as the framers described it, the Senate serves as a saucer to cool the heat of the House,” Cruz said.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), one of McConnell’s closest allies when he served in the Senate, said he could not envision the leader going along with a plan that would radically break with the founding vision of the Senate.
“Absolutely not,” Gregg said when asked whether McConnell might support changing the filibuster rule. “The filibuster protects the minority, and it is the only vehicle that allows the Senate to function in its historic role of protecting the minority.”
Gregg, a contributor to The Hill, argued that, without a 60-vote threshold on legislative action, the Senate would become like the House, “where you basically have autocratic rule of a bare majority.”
“The whole purpose of the Senate is undermined philosophically and substantively,” he added. “It would be a disaster.”
McConnell is an institutionalist who has carefully studied the Senate’s history and takes its traditions seriously.
Since taking over as majority leader in January, he has made it a priority to “restore the Senate to a place of high purpose” by reviving floor debates, allowing a robust amendment process and ceding back power to committee chairmen.
Democrats complain when McConnell occasionally blocks them from filing amendments, but the Senate voted on more amendments under his leadership in January than it did in all of 2014, when Democrats controlled the chamber.
Lowering the threshold for quashing filibusters and advancing legislation to final up-or-down votes would fly in the face of McConnell’s pledge to restore regular order.
He criticized then-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDemocrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Senate Democratic super PAC sets fundraising record Cruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed MORE (D-Nev.) for invoking the nuclear option in the fall of 2013 to lower the threshold for confirming executive nominees and judicial branch nominees below the level of the Supreme Court.
“Senate Democrats are gearing up today to make one of the most consequential changes to the United States Senate in the history of our nation,” McConnell said at the time, calling the nuclear option changing the rules “by breaking the rules.”
He called it a violation “of every protection of minority rights that have defined the United States Senate for as long as anyone can remember.”
Hewitt, an influential conservative voice, is trying to rally support for Senate rules reform among White House hopefuls.
He argues that eradicating the filibuster would allow Republicans to bypass Senate Democratic obstruction and confront Obama directly by putting bills on his desk to sign or veto.
“The prospect of an epic and continuing clash between a Republican Congress sending bill after bill over to the president on matters large and small, and the president vetoing them all would set up a choice for the country on 2016 that is both fundamental and necessary,” he wrote in an op-ed for Townhall.com earlier this year.
Walker, who’s polling in the top three nationwide among GOP presidential contenders, enthusiastically endorsed filibuster reform on Hewitt’s show last week.
When the host asked whether Walker would urge Senate Republicans as president to break the filibuster to repeal Obama
Care “root and branch,” Walker responded “Yes. Absolutely.”
Bush offered a more circumspect endorsement.
“I’d have to see — if the repeal is what I’m going to advocate, then I might consider that,” he said.
Bush emphasized that Republicans need to come up with a viable healthcare plan geared toward helping the middle class as part of its strategy to repeal ObamaCare.
Senate GOP aides and strategists argue abolishing the filibuster is shortsighted.
“My sense is that it’s largely politics,” said a senior GOP aide. “To the extent they think the base cares about it, and they’re trying to win a primary it makes sense. I think it’s a little shortsighted.”
Another Senate Republican aide said: “Getting rid of the filibuster sounds like a good idea until you think through what that means. Perhaps it means full repeal of ObamaCare in 2017, sure — but let’s say Washington flips again. That means ObamaCare 2.0 in 2021.”
Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former senior aide to Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE (R-Ky.), who is also running for president, panned the idea of gutting the filibuster.
“Although eliminating the filibuster might make it easier to repeal ObamaCare, it will also make it easier to pass Republican-supported ideas that will set the conservative movement back decades, like Manchin-Toomey-style gun control, Common Core educational standards and the next bailout of Wall Street,” he said.