Opinion: Time for Democrats to stand up to Republican filibuster bullies

As a brazen political strategy to make Democrats’ 54-vote control of the Senate meaningless, the filibuster continues working to perfection for Senate Republicans. 

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There is no reason for them to stop because Democrats, despite their majority, are afraid to use their powers to fix the broken rule.

But just as spring brings cherry blossoms to D.C., Democrats in the leadership are now showing budding signs of being willing to fight the GOP’s corrupt use of filibusters.

At a forum hosted by the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) for the first time spoke with deep regret about having failed to back filibuster reform in January at the start of the new Congress.

“I supported Harry’s (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decision to try to work out a bipartisan agreement on the rules, because I think it’s in the best interests of the institution, but I can tell you the abuse that we’ve seen since then is not encouraging at all,” Durbin said. 

“I think we need to get back to regular order, and that means stopping the abuse of the filibuster.”

When pressed for specifics, Durbin answered the Senate may have to “change the rules.”

Durbin was reacting to a move by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to block a vote on the Senate’s Continuing Resolution — a temporary measure to fund the government through the end of this fiscal year and avoid a government shutdown. 

Moran demanded a vote on his amendment to prevent some upcoming sequestration budget cuts, in exchange for allowing the vote on the continuing resolution to go through.

Reid also spoke in anger about Moran’s move: “It is things like that that will cause the Senate to have to reassess all the rules because right now they accomplish so little.” 

Earlier this month, Reid showed the first sign of being willing to fight on filibusters. 

He openly voiced regret for not backing filibuster reform after the GOP’s silent filibuster of  one of President Obama’s judicial nominees, Caitlin Halligan. 

“On one hand, my Republican colleagues did not practice regular order. Instead they demanded a 60-vote threshold for confirmation of a qualified nominee, Caitlin Halligan, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit,” Reid said. 

“Republicans hid behind a cloture vote — a filibuster by another term — to prevent a simple up or down vote on this important nomination. They took the easy way out.”

Obama withdrew Halligan's nomination last Friday, citing the "unjustified filibuster."

But for all the sparks of fight and anger now coming from the Democrats, the GOP is planning more filibusters. 

The Republicans are in the planning stage of filibustering several members of the president’s new slate of nominees to head federal agencies.

The president’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, has already had a hold placed on her nomination by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

Never mind that McCarthy served as an environmental policy adviser to Republican Mitt Romney when he was the Governor of Massachusetts. 

Never mind that the Senate Environment and Public Works committee had not even scheduled a date for McCarthy’s confirmation hearings yet where she could answer the Republican’s concerns.

The same playbook is being used against Obama’s nominee to be Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez. 

Republican Sens. David Vitter (La.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) have vowed to block Perez’s nomination.

In an interview with the National Review Online, Grassley, who is the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel, laid down this marker: “At this point, I want to wait until I get answers to the questions, if I don’t get answers to the questions, I’ll work to block his nomination.” 

Keep in mind this Senate GOP caucus has already broken with hundreds of years of Senate precedent and filibustered the nomination of a Cabinet secretary, Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. 

They used the same filibuster weapon — with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) leading the way — to injure and delay John Brennan’s nomination as CIA Director.

The GOP filibuster strategy is proving to be the tool of choice for draining momentum from President Obama’s reelection mandate. 

It stops the Democratic majority in the senate from controlling the Senate. And it makes it difficult for the president to put his nominees in place to govern the country.

The GOP is betting that voters will blame Democrats for the dysfunction in Congress as much as they blame the GOP.  

And so far, the bet is paying off, because the press is failing to call out the GOP for an extreme and nasty political strategy of demanding a super-majority of 60 votes —the votes required to break a filibuster — to get anything done.

There is, however, one thing that could end the GOP blockade and shake up the ossified politics of D.C. 

And that is filibuster reform.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) want to require senators to come to the floor to speak during a filibuster. 

No more silent filibusters based on threats.

To be sure, robust congressional oversight is an essential part of our democracy. 

But using oversight to justify twisting the filibuster rule into a weapon to obstruct a twice-elected president’s ability to govern undermines our democracy. 

How long will it take for Reid and Durbin to fix the problem?