GOP Gets Tough on Filibusters
Senate Republican defenses have stiffened as the 111th Congress has progressed, creating more obstacles for Democrats and forcing them to make concessions on major pieces of their legislative agenda.
The enhanced GOP unity has given Republicans 10 victories on 20 filibuster attempts over the past four months. The GOP’s ability to stick together comes after the minority blocked Democratic legislation only five times in the previous 15 months.
Until January, there were only 40 Republican Senators, one shy of the number needed to filibuster. But even with the addition of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), only recently has the party begun taking advantage of the power of 41.
After all, Brown and other Republican moderates were frequent defectors on filibuster-breaking votes until the financial regulatory reform bill hit the floor in late April.
Sixty votes are needed to break a filibuster, or invoke cloture on a bill or amendment.
Despite the success that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has had in keeping his Members in line, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 59-vote majority has allowed the Nevada Democrat to gradually pick off the votes that he needs by crafting deals that appeal to the few moderates on the other side of the aisle.
For example, Republicans voted to block the financial reform bill four times, but Democrats finally secured the GOP votes they needed by eliminating provisions that Brown and other Republicans opposed.
Similarly, Republicans took advantage of support from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and blocked three different versions of a bill that included unemployment benefit extensions.
Although Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins eventually broke from their party, Reid was unable to end the filibuster until Democratic Sen. Carte Goodwin (W.Va.) was sworn in as the replacement for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D).
Republicans and Democrats alike say the rise in partisan cloture votes is due to election-year pressures, but both also blame the other party for falling victim to those forces.
McConnell charged last week that vulnerable Democrats are afraid of voting on some GOP amendments because of the potential political ramifications back home. McConnell said that led Reid to block the introduction of amendments through a procedure known as filling the amendment tree and then file cloture to ensure limited debate.
“What happens when you’re in the majority is Members are pulling on your pants’ legs saying, We don’t want to take these votes,'” McConnell said. “So what you can do is fill up the tree and file cloture, and my counterpart has done that more than the last five leaders combined. I’m not criticizing Harry for doing it. I’m just saying the inevitable effect of that is it unifies us.”
McConnell cites a Congressional Research Service report showing Reid has filled the amendment tree at least 16 times this Congress and 21 times in the 110th Congress.
On recent cloture votes, Snowe, one of most frequent GOP defectors, has said she has supported filibusters in order to secure amendment votes for her Republican colleagues.
McConnell said it was harder to keep his caucus together on cloture votes earlier this year and last year because “the president was sitting on a 70 percent approval rating and his situation and his ability to influence things was at a high point. And you’ve seen that kind of deteriorate over the course of the last year and a half, thereby creating a difficult problem for the majorities in the House and Senate in keeping their own Members together, because you end up having a larger number of nervous Nellies who are afraid they’re taking a career-ending vote.”
But Democrats said McConnell’s political strategy was simply designed to deny the majority accomplishments or to at least slow them down. They said the minority has stepped up that strategy as Democratic electoral fortunes have appeared gloomy.
“Sen. McConnell came to Sen. Reid several months ago and said, If you haven’t noticed, it’s over. You can stay as long as you want, but nothing’s going to happen,'” Majority Whip Dick Durbin said last week. “And so anything we’ve [accomplished] has been nothing short of a political miracle, when we can deliver the 60th vote.”
The Illinois Democrat also dismissed McConnell’s argument that Republicans were merely fighting for the minority’s right to offer amendments.
“The fact that they would force more cloture votes and more filibusters than any time in the history of the Senate — it goes way beyond minority rights. It’s a minority strategy,” he said.
Democrats compare the 16 times that Reid has filled the amendment tree to the 69 times that the majority has had to file cloture on a bill or amendment during this Congress.
But of those 69 cloture filings, Reid has an enviable record of winning 78 percent of the time.