Forcing The Filibuster: Senseless Fun/Political Necessity

Forcing the issue on Republican filibusters is a short-term feel-good move unlikely to produce the result Democrats desire.


The legislative battle over the economic stimulus bill illustrated the contours of what is left of Republican power in Congress. In the House of Representatives, where Democrats currently hold a 77-seat majority, the GOP’s united front of strident opposition was essentially symbolic. While much was made of the fact that the bill passed without a single House Republican’s vote, the size of the Democratic majority means that the majority party can withstand a significantly larger number of defections within the caucus than they had on this piece of legislation (eleven Democrats voted against the House version of the bill, and seven voted against the final version), even in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. The Senate, however, is a slightly different story.

Democrats currently hold 58 seats, and even if/when Al Franken is seated they will still be one vote shy of a 60-seat “supermajority” of the sort that was needed to pass the stimulus and will be needed to block Republican attempts to filibuster future legislation. In the case of the stimulus, a supermajority was needed because the legislation would increase the budget deficit. In the case of other important pieces of legislation – health care reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, regulations on the financial services industry – a mere majority would be enough to pass the bill, but 60 votes would be required to invoke cloture and bring the actual bill to an up-or-down floor vote if the Republicans attempt to block the legislation by filibuster. While it is certainly possible that a Senator who is opposed to a particular bill might vote for cloture but against the actual bill, in practice that is highly unlikely, and thus legislation supported by the majority may be blocked entirely or weakened by concessions to a small number of Republicans willing to vote for cloture, just as billions of dollars of highly stimulative spending had to be cut in order to get Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter to vote for the stimulus.

The filibuster as used in the Senate today bears little resemblance to the somewhat romanticized image of the phonebook being recited on the Senate floor. Today’s filibuster does not require a speech of any sort – once a Senator indicates that he intends to filibuster a particular bill, the Senate simply cannot move on to other matters unless the bill being filibustered is withdrawn or a three-fifths supermajority votes in favor of a cloture motion. However, the Senate Majority Leader does have the power to require a filibustering Senator to give a floor speech. Many on the left, increasingly frustrated with Republican obstructionism, have called for Harry Reid to use this power. While I sympathize with them and share their frustration, I fail to see how the “let them eat filibuster” strategy would benefit the cause of getting progressive legislation enacted.

As I see it, for a Democrat, forcing Republican Senators to give floor speeches if they wish to filibuster a bill is the political equivalent of eating something deep-fried and spicy. It tastes/feels good at the time, but later on there will be heartburn. Anyone who thinks that a real live old-school filibuster would consist of Tom Coburn reading the phone book or Jim Bunning reciting the back of his baseball card over and over or some other blatant act of time-wasting that would make everyone fed up with Republicans is sadly mistaken. Making the Republicans filibuster would instead turn the floor over to a non-stop barrage of right-wing talking points. We all saw how the Democrats temporarily lost control of the narrative during the debate over various amendments to the stimulus, requiring a series of public appearances by President Obama to get things back on track. I don’t see how giving Jim DeMint all the C-SPAN airtime he wants to offer his spin against a piece of legislation is going to make that legislation more likely to pass.

A strategy that may be less immediately gratifying but more likely to pay dividends in the long run is to stick with the current procedures on the filibuster and attack vulnerable Republicans in their home states for blocking legislation favored by the majority of their constituents (there are currently nine Republican Senators representing states that Obama won, and at least three of them will be up for re-election in 2010). If the bill is re-introduced later on, achieving cloture might be easier the second time around.

HOWARD MEGDAL: While I understand where Jessica is coming from, I strongly disagree with both the likely results of forcing a filibuster along with the political ramifications.

First, let’s take a look at the point Jessica makes that the reading of the phone books are a thing of the past. This is almost certainly true. And Harry Reid even released a memo making the same argument in response to public pressure on this issue.
But his memo only makes the point that Republicans wouldn’t have to grandstand. They certainly could- and the indications are that they’d not be shy about doing so.
Still, let’s say they choose not to call attention to the fact that they are derailing the President’s program. What Reid seems unwilling to point out is that the Democrats can! It is easy enough to picture it- while the Republican filibuster, Democratic press conferences on the issue, hammering home who is stopping the bills from moving forward. Ads is Republican districts, so on and so forth. There’s no shortage of ways to make this point.
Alternatively, of course, Republicans can do this for the Democrats, by standing up and delivering right-wing talking points. How is that likely to go over? Well, take a look at the polling out tonight. Consistently, the public favors Obama’s approach over that of the Republicans by a roughly 2-to-1 margin. Even more stark are the numbers in favor of action over doing nothing. In short, standing up for a filibuster (doing nothing) while arguing for Republican ideas (wildly unpopular) can do nothing but further damage to the Republican party.
And in the zero-sum game that is two-party politics, that means gains for the Democrats. Why wouldn’t Harry Reid embrace such change? A recent survey of American politics should be enough to convince anyone that if Harry Reid opposes it, that’s reason enough to support it.
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