TAKING ON HISTORY AND HYPOCRITES
Senators swear ‘nuclear option’ is last fight in filibuster war
Even as senators prepare to trigger the “nuclear option,” both Democrats and Republicans insisted this is as far as it goes, and they’ll never try to do away with their power to filibuster actual bills.
Living up to that promise, however, could be tough.
Thursday’s vote to curtail the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees and to speed Judge Neil Gorsuch toward final confirmation is just the latest strike, orchestrated this time by the GOP. Four years ago it was Democrats who used the nuclear option for the president’s Cabinet, lowercourt judges and all other nominees save for the Supreme Court.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flatly ruled out going any further.
“There’s no sentiment to change the legislative filibuster,” he said Tuesday.
The filibuster is the iconic power of the Senate — the thing that makes it different from the House, where the majority always rules. The Senate, meanwhile, operates on consent, giving even a single lawmaker extraordinary abilities to gum up the works, forcing leaders to go through a long series of hoops just to get legislation to the floor, much less get it approved.
Both parties acknowledge they’ve been guilty of abusing the power, but they insist
they respect it and don’t want to see it disappear.
“I can’t speak for the Democrats,” said Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican. “I can say that there’s no plans whatsoever and no concern on behalf of the Republicans.”
The problem is, they’re not sure what the other party might do.
“I am worried about that,” said Sen. Michael F. Bennet, one of just four Democrats who is breaking with his party’s filibuster and backing Judge Gorsuch.
The pressure could be too much for either party to resist.
Both Democrats and Republicans in the House have complained in recent years that they pass bills only to see them die in the filibuster-spawned gridlock of the Senate.
There’s no official count of filibusters, but a rough approximation can be gleaned from the number of “cloture” petitions filed to set an end to debate. As late as the 1950s, senators would go an entire Congress without ever facing a cloture vote.
They began to become more common in the 1970s, became prevalent in the 1990s and became everyday occurrences under President Obama.
The Senate tallied 218 cloture votes in the 113th Congress, which spanned 2013 and 2014 — when Mr. Obama was in the White House and Republicans were the minority in the Senate.
Sen. Susan M. Collins is trying to rebuild the trust between the two parties. She said she’s organizing a pledge drive to get senators to commit to preserving the filibuster for bills.
“I am going to lead a letter to our two leaders that puts as many of us as possible on record as saying that we would not support the elimination of the legislative filibuster,” she said.
She had even tried to head off this week’s showdown on Supreme Court nominees, working with a bipartisan group of about 10 senators to see if they could strike another deal.
Those efforts fell short. “There was so little trust between the two parties that it was very difficult to put together an agreement,” Ms. Collins said.
She said Democrats poisoned the situation in 2013, when they triggered the nuclear option. Democrats say they were following a path the GOP first pondered in 2005.
Back during that first fight, Ms. Collins joined what was known as the Gang of 14 — seven Republicans and seven Democrats — who joined together and struck their own deal, heading off the nuclear option.
The Democrats agreed to confirm a series of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, who had been blocked by Democratic filibusters, while the GOP senators agreed not to use the nuclear option.
That agreement held for several years, even after Mr. Obama was elected, but began to fray by his second term.
LOGJAM: Republicans have threatened the “nuclear option” to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch (top) to the Supreme Court if Democrats filibuster. Sen. Jeff Merkley (bottom) once tried to curtail filibusters for holding up President Obama’s nominees.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ruled out changing legislative filibuster rules in light of Democrats boycotting a vote on Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. Unlike in the House, where the majority rules, a filibuster can derail Senate business.