With minority bent on obstruction, US Senate still the place bills go to die

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives to the Capitol on Saturday, August 7, 2021 for a weekend session to finish up work on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Greg Nash

In March 2021, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared the U.S. Senate would not “be the legislative graveyard, very simply.” He made a down-payment on that pledge by using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to secure Senate passage of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID Relief Bill without the support of any Republicans. Last month, the Senate passed a bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill (The American Jobs Plan) with every Democrat and 19 Republicans voting yes.

That said, the Senate remains the place bills go to die — including bills passed by the House of Representatives and backed by substantial percentages of voters. Here’s a short list of how a minority bent on obstruction is using the filibuster to thwart the will of the people:

Republicans have blocked two gun control measures passed by the House that would mandate universal background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a gun, extend the amount of time the federal government could take conducting those checks, and apply the law to unlicensed and private sellers. Without citing any evidence, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) claimed the legislation would “not reduce crime, it makes it worse.” About 92 percent of Americans favor these measures.

Republicans have blocked the Protect the Right to Organize Act passed by the House. The legislation would give the National Labor Relations Board the power to fine companies that retaliate against union organizers; requires arbitration when authorized unions and employers are deadlocked; overrides so-called “right to work” laws that allow employers to refuse to deduct dues from paychecks in unionized workplaces; and would reduce requirements for “independent contractors” (gig workers) to demonstrate they are actually employees. About 59 percent of Americans (including 40 percent of Republicans) strongly or somewhat strongly support the PRO Act; and 68 percent (including 54 percent of Republicans) believe public sector workers have the right to unionize.

Republicans blocked a House bill (backed by 35 Republicans) to set up a bi-partisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Six Republican senators, short of the ten needed to end a filibuster, supported the measure. “I don’t want to know, but I need to know,” said Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). To ensure the commission is “fair, impartial and focused on the facts, Republicans need to be involved,” Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) claimed. At the time, 66 percent of Americans (including 45 percent of Republicans) endorsed the establishment of the commission.

Republicans blocked the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed by the House. The bill rolls back qualified immunity so that police officers can be sued in civil court; requires police departments to collect data on the ethnic, racial and religious identities of suspects they detain; bars no-knock warrants; ends federal funds for departments that do not bar chokeholds; creates a national database on police misconduct; and requires police officers to wear body cameras. A full 74 percent of Americans (including 55 percent of Republicans) strongly or somewhat support these measures. “And so now, the hurdle is the Senate,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said recently. “And, you know, it’s the hurdle with every piece of legislation because of the filibuster.”

Republicans have blocked the For The People Act passed by the House. The bill reduces the impact of the recent spate of state laws restricting voting, especially by members of ethnic and minority groups. When asked their opinions without partisan cues, more than 60 percent of Americans (and 38-52 percent of Republicans) strongly or somewhat support requiring non-partisan redistricting commissions (to eliminate gerrymandering); a 15-day early voting period for all federal elections; same day and/or automatic registration for eligible voters; and giving all eligible voters the option to cast their ballots by mail.

When the Senate reconvenes in September, it will consider President Biden’s $3.5 trillion Budget Plan. Given the opposition of every Republican, Schumer will need the support of all 50 Democrats for the bill to pass.

And the Senate must also address the debt ceiling.

Given these heavy and time-consuming lifts, it is unlikely that gun control, labor organizing, police reform, and voting rights bills, which are all subject to the filibuster, will be considered by what once was — and is no longer — the world’s “greatest deliberative body.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Bill Cassidy Chuck Schumer Filibuster Joe Biden Karen Bass Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Parliamentary procedure Reconciliation Senate Republicans Ted Cruz

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