GOP Reconsiders Use of Filibuster

Posted February 4, 2009 at 6:14pm

After nearly two years of bitter complaints, Republicans appear to have gotten the vote-heavy floor debates they demanded of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But defeat after defeat of GOP amendments has Republican leaders and rank-and-file Senators reconsidering their decision to largely swear off procedural filibusters to halt the Democrats’ agenda.

GOP leaders have not publicly discussed the possibility of using a filibuster to block the pending economic stimulus bill. But there is growing unhappiness within the Republican Conference that very few of their proposals are making it into the legislation — even as Reid allows numerous votes on their ideas.

As a result, a number of Republicans say they believe leadership may need to bring back the use of procedural filibusters.

“I think that would be a bad outcome for the country if [the stimulus bill] passes, especially in its current form. So we’re, I think probably, inclined to exercise the powers that we have procedurally if we don’t at least get a chance to make some improvements to it,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Wednesday. “If there arises a procedural vote, that would probably be our best shot to keep our folks together,” he added.

In the days following the November elections, Republicans signaled that it was unlikely they would use procedural filibusters if they received floor votes on key amendments.

Senators often prefer to use filibusters of procedural votes — generally a cloture motion designed to end debate — to halt legislation rather than a more traditional filibuster of a bill itself.

Using a procedural vote muddies the issue for the public and can allow Senators to stick with their party and block a bill while still being able to say they didn’t technically vote against the legislation.

The Democratic cloture motion and subsequent filibuster by Republicans became the hallmark of the past two years in the Senate, with the chamber falling into hours of uninterrupted quorum calls as the two sides wound down the clock to another unsuccessful cloture vote.

Republicans defended the use of filibusters by countering that Reid’s floor strategies often gave them no chance to amend legislation, and they argued that if Democrats used a more open amendment process many of the procedural hurdles would have been avoided.

Following the elections, Reid and other top Democrats seemed inclined to work with GOP leaders to ensure they get votes on their amendments.

According to a preliminary review of votes over the past three years, since the beginning of the 111th Congress the Senate has voted 28 times on amendments, budget waivers that would change legislation or passage of a bill, while Reid has filed only three cloture motions.

Those numbers are similar to the same time period at the beginning of the 110th Congress in 2007, when lawmakers voted 25 times on non-cloture motion and non-nomination matters, while Reid filed eight cloture motions.

But as relations between the two parties deteriorated in the 110th, the vote count dropped significantly. During a similar time period during the second session of the past Congress, while Reid filed only three cloture motions the Senate voted a paltry seven times.

And while Republicans may now be getting what they had sought, the fact that Democrats have easily swatted down most of their amendments has many in the Republican Conference rethinking their position.

Thune, who serves as vice chairman of the GOP Conference, said he believes that if Democrats beat back all of the Republican amendments to the stimulus bill, the GOP must use all of its tools to stop it, and that while President Barack Obama “has said all the right things,” it has not translated into true bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

“So far this whole tone of bipartisanship is ‘we’ll be nice to you but we won’t include any of your ideas,’” Thune said.

Similarly, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on Tuesday criticized the lack of hearings on legislation that comes to the floor and said that moving bills outside “the regular order” was not acceptable.

“I think there’s a real problem with what we’re doing here. Moving bills without hearings,” he said, arguing that “hearings would give us a chance to digest it” and better judge the bills’ impact.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) on Wednesday refused to rule out the use of a filibuster to block the stimulus bill. Alexander said that how the GOP approaches the endgame largely depends on how Democrats proceed over the next few days.

“We’ll see how this goes. If the Democrats modify their bill and accept our proposals or some of our proposals,” Republicans may be unwilling, or unable, to block the legislation, Alexander said.

But Alexander defended his Conference, saying Republicans have simply been looking for the kind of bipartisanship that Obama has repeatedly called for over the past few weeks. “What we’re seeking to do is what the president asked us to do,” Alexander said.

A senior Democratic leadership aide rejected the notion that bipartisanship means Republican ideas automatically will make it into legislation. “It sounds like they can’t take yes for an answer. They’ve been given opportunity after opportunity, and now they want more,” the aide said.

The Democratic aide pointed to Tuesday’s vote on an amendment sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). That proposal would have significantly increased spending in the stimulus bill for infrastructure, one of the GOP’s chief complaints about the package.

But Republicans, voting together on a procedural point of order vote, defeated the amendment.

“They demanded more money for infrastructure, and yet they largely voted in lock step against it Tuesday,” the aide said.

Senate Republican Conference spokesman Ryan Loskarn responded by saying: “President Obama has said he wants our ideas and welcomes bipartisanship. Democratic leadership in Congress ought to heed his advice and work with us. It’s not unreasonable for Republicans to oppose legislation that spends $1.3 trillion and includes few if any Republican policy proposals.”