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.
The problem with this agreement is that there was never a political incentive for McConnell to keep his part of the deal. As we saw during President Obama’s first term, Republicans can filibuster legislation without consequence—the public is indifferent to the details of congressional procedure. And so, as soon as it became inconvenient, McConnell ditched the agreement. First with the filibuster of Caitlin Halligan’s nomination to the DC circuit court, and now, with the Manchin-Toomey compromise on gun control:
The Senate plans to vote on nine proposed changes to a gun control bill Wednesday, with a centerpiece proposal on background checks appearing headed for defeat.
The chief architects of the background check proposal, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), acknowledged Wednesday morning that they still don’t have the votes necessary to pass their amendment.
Here’s the thing: This isn’t accurate. Fifty-two senators have signed on to support the proposal, which prevents gun access for criminals and the mentally ill, and expands existing background checks to gun shows and online sales. And in case you need reminding, 52 senators constitutes a majority in the Senate, which has 100 members. The problem isn’t that Manchin and Toomey lack the votes to pass their amendment, it’s that they lack the votes to break a filibuster—there are still seven undecided (five Democrats and two Republicans), but even if they all voted for cloture, it wouldn’t be enough to bring the proposal to the floor of the Senate.
To be fair to McConnell, Republicans didn’t filibuster a motion to proceed on the amendment. But they are filibustering the amendment itself, despite its noncontroversial provisions and majority support.
It was clear at the beginning of the year that serious filibuster reform was needed if Democrats were to have any hope of passing significant legislation. Nothing in the last three months has challenged that assessment. The question is whether Senate leaders see it the same way.