Trump takes on the fil­i­buster

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - OPINION - Byron York Colum­nist

Pres­i­dent Trump brings an out­sider’s per­spec­tive to the long de­bate over the Se­nate fil­i­buster. An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the Se­nate dis­agrees with his de­sire to kill the fil­i­buster, which means he doesn’t have a prayer of win­ning. But he’s not en­tirely wrong, ei­ther.

Set aside Trump’s sledge­ham­mer tweets di­rected at Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell. In pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, Trump has made a rea­son­able and so­phis­ti­cated case against the fil­i­buster. Not only has the fil­i­buster been elim­i­nated for ap­point­ments, Trump has noted, it has also been elim­i­nated (through the process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion) for some of the most im­por­tant things the Se­nate does — that is, for the bud­get and re­lated bills it passes each year. So now, after all those changes, what re­mains of the fil­i­buster is some­how sup­posed to be sa­cred and can never be changed again?

Trump’s ques­tion not only rec­og­nizes the re­al­ity of for­mer Ma­jor­ity Leader’s Harry Reid’s nu­clear-op­tion de­struc­tion of the fil­i­buster for ap­point­ments, and McCon­nell’s ex­ten­sion of that to Supreme Court nom­i­na­tions. It also takes into ac­count the re­al­ity of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, by which, a gen­er­a­tion ago, the Se­nate killed the fil­i­buster for bud­get-re­lated bills, al­low­ing those mea­sures to pass on a sim­ple ma­jor­ity vote. In other words, the fil­i­buster has been steadily whit­tled down — by the Se­nate it­self, of course, and not by a head­strong pres­i­dent — so why can’t the Se­nate do it again?

Trump doesn’t have the slight­est chance, of course. In May, when the pres­i­dent called for an end to the fil­i­buster, McCon­nell said, “There is an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity on a bi­par­ti­san ba­sis not in­ter­ested in chang­ing the way the Se­nate op­er­ates on the leg­isla­tive cal­en­dar. And that will not hap­pen.”

In re­turn, Trump has railed against McCon­nell and Se­nate tra­di­tion.

It would be an un­der­state­ment to say McCon­nell is not con­vinced, and he has es­sen­tially ended the dis­cus­sion with his over-my-dead-body pro­nounce­ments.

One of the prob­lems in the Trump-McCon­nell re­la­tion­ship is that Trump tends to treat lead­ers in Congress as if they are his em­ploy­ees in­stead of lead­ers elected on their own and not be­holden to the pres­i­dent. Plus, Congress is not only a sep­a­rate branch of gov­ern­ment, it is the first branch of gov­ern­ment; a united Congress can re­move the pres­i­dent, while it doesn’t work the other way around. Nev­er­the­less, Trump whacks away at some of the law­mak­ers he will need to pass his agenda.

One point heard often in the de­bate is that Trump can rail all he wants about the fil­i­buster, but the real prob­lem is that he couldn’t get 50 Repub­li­cans to vote with him on Oba­macare, and chang­ing the fil­i­buster rules wouldn’t change the re­sult. That’s prob­a­bly not en­tirely ac­cu­rate. The House had to craft its bill specif­i­cally to ac­com­mo­date the Se­nate’s rec­on­cil­i­a­tion re­quire­ments — mean­ing it was shaped by the fil­i­buster. The Se­nate had to craft its bill with the same con­sid­er­a­tions. Se­nate drafters had to leave pro­vi­sions that might have got­ten 50-plus votes out of the bill in or­der to stay within rec­on­cil­i­a­tion rules.

Now, stonewalled by McCon­nell, Trump might look for a com­pro­mise that moves him closer to his goal. In­deed, short of fully elim­i­nat­ing the fil­i­buster, Trump could pro­pose get­ting rid of the 60-vote stan­dard on mo­tions to pro­ceed, stream­lin­ing vot­ing on pro­ce­dural matters, and other ini­tia­tives. Those might not suc­ceed ei­ther, but at least the pres­i­dent would have tried.

Hypocrisy is often at play when it comes to the fil­i­buster; sen­a­tors in the ma­jor­ity op­pose the prac­tice, while sen­a­tors in the ma­jor­ity sup­port it. But there is also a prin­ci­pled, con­sis­tent po­si­tion on the fil­i­buster. Vet­eran sen­a­tors like McCon­nell know that while they might be in the ma­jor­ity now, they could be in the mi­nor­ity next year. They know a lot of bad bills might have be­come law had the fil­i­buster not ex­isted. So many of them pro­tect the fil­i­buster whether they’re in charge or not.

The pres­i­dent is an out­sider who shares none of those con­cerns. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a point. The Se­nate has changed its rules, in­clud­ing those on su­per­ma­jori­ties, many times over the years. And in the fu­ture, it might change them again — in Trump’s di­rec­tion.

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