It hasn't gotten too much attention given the other things that are going on, but there is a battle looming this summer over the filibuster, one that could be a significant milestone in the already poisonous relationship between the parties on Capitol Hill. As Republicans have moved from filibustering every significant piece of legislation to also filibustering cabinet nominees (something that was extraordinarily rare until now), Democrats' frustration on the filibuster has grown. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is threatening to use the "nuclear option," forcing a vote to change Senate rules to circumvent the filibuster (though probably only on presidential nominations).
Reid would no doubt be cheered by many on the left if he did so, but others will warn to be careful what you wish for. After all, once you remove the filibuster, doesn't that open the door to Republicans running roughshod over the Democrats if and when they get the majority back in the Senate?
Let's be realistic here. Unless there's some kind of major upheaval within the Republican party that moves it back to the center, when the day comes that there's a Republican president and a Republican senate, the filibuster will be gone.
Yesterday, a Republican filibuster killed the Senate compromise on expanded background checks, which had support from 54 senators, including its authors, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Skittish red state Democrats like Montana’s Max Baucus, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Alaska’s Mark Begich, and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor joined the opposition, voting to uphold the filibuster and defeat the proposal.
This afternoon, the Manchin-Toomey amendment—a proposal to expand background checks to gun purchases that occur at gun shows and online—failed to be adopted, despite the fact that a majority of senators favored it. That's because today's vote wasn't a vote on the bill, it was a vote to have a vote on the bill. It was a vote to end a filibuster. The people who voted "no" were saying that they were so violently opposed to this modest expansion of background checks that they refused to even allow the Senate to vote on the bill. The overwhelming majority of the filibuster supporters were Republicans, but a few Democrats joined them as well. Remember these names: Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Max Baucus (MT), Mark Begich (AK), and Mark Pryor (AR).
Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brokered a “gentlemen’s agreement” on the filibuster with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats wouldn’t try to seriously reform the filibuster if Republicans would limit use of the procedure on “motions to proceed” to legislation or nominations.
At the moment, there are 45 Republicans in the United States Senate, a number sufficient to give them the ability, should they so choose, to filibuster anything and everything. And choose they do, with only the rarest of exceptions. But we may be about to see one of those rare exceptions, on a piece of legislation regulating guns. Maybe.
Adam Liptak, writing for the New York Times, has a long feature on Senate malapportionment, political science shorthand for the fact of unequal representation in the upper chamber of Congress. Our system has always had a small state bias, hence the Senate—a powerful body where each state gets equal representation—and the Electoral College, a variation on the same.
The Prospect's Jamelle Bouie makes an important point about Rand Paul's rare Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style filibuster on Wednesday. Before Paul started speaking to hold up the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, the Senate silently continued to filibuster Caitlin Halligan's nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Paul's filibuster will get more attention, but the filibuster of Halligan is more telling.
Like the roomful of monkeys who eventually write Hamlet if given long enough, or the broken clock that’s on time twice a day, sooner or later an otherwise dubious political figure will find his moral compass pointing true north if he keeps spinning in place. Or maybe it’s Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who stays in one place as the world spins, with north finally swinging into his sights. Whatever the motive, whatever paranoia fuels the worldview that drives him, whatever withering scorn he invited yesterday from fellow Republicans who found themselves in the strange position of defending a Democratic president, Paul’s filibuster of the last 48 hours was an act of patriotism more authentic than we usually see from a right that so ostentatiously professes to love a country it refuses to understand. If nothing else, Paul returned to the tradition of the filibuster some semblance of the heroism that his minority party has left in shambles the last few years with no small assist from Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, the eminent hack who had the opportunity to rescue that tradition a couple of months back and declined. Thus we’re left with Paul as unlikely savior of not merely tradition but the filibuster’s intent, which is to provide a venue for the expression of lonely principles. Sometimes those principles are profound enough that stopping the country in its tracks to ponder them is worth the inconvenience, before such principles are flattened by the steamroller of national consensus.
Today has been an interesting day for filibusters. This morning, the Senate filibustered President Obama's nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Halligan isn't unqualified and she isn't a radical. Her only offense is that Obama wants her for one of the most important courts in the country. As such, Republicans successfully filibuster her nomination, by a vote of 51 to 41. Sixty votes are needed to break a filibuster and move to a final vote.
In 1906, journalist David Graham Phillips scored a best-seller with his book The Treason of the Senate. “The Senate is the eager, resourceful, indefatigable agent of interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be,” Phillips wrote.
There’s a good case that the “millionaire’s club” of 1906 was Audie Murphy compared to today’s Senate.
The 111th Congress was practically defined by Republicans who turned an extraordinary measure–the filibuster–into a routine tool of obstruction. GOP senators invoked holds and filibusters on virtually everything that came from Senate Democrats, resulting in a session that saw more filibusters than any previous session in history. This nifty graph is illustrative:
“I think there are 60 votes in the Senate to solve the budget challenge and to secure Medicare and Social Security,” Kerrey said Saturday.
“The Democratic and Republican caucuses are the problem.”
Those organized party caucuses stand in the way of bipartisan cooperation on difficult problems that continue to grow larger and become more urgent as the Congress remains paralyzed by partisan gridlock, Kerrey said.