An historic upending of tradition took place yesterday in the United States Senate. The filibuster, a procedural rule that has stood for a couple of hundred years, was limited in a significant way. After five years of abuse, Democrats finally summoned up the grit to put the brakes on the GOP’s deliberately excessive use of the tactic.
Under ordinary circumstances, the filibuster was used by the senate minority as a last resort when they felt strongly, on well articulated principles, that a bill or an executive branch nominee must not advance. But ever since the election of Barack Obama, Republicans have inappropriately deployed it as a backdoor method of nullifying the presidency of a man they viscerally despise. To illustrate the enormity of the problem, there have been 168 presidential nominees that have been blocked by filibuster. About half of those were the total for the 230 years before Obama was elected. The other half were all during the five years since Obama came to office. Gee, what do you suppose would account for that?
Earlier this year Democrats came within a hair’s breadth of triggering the so-called “nuclear option” (a term coined by then-GOP leader Trent Lott when he was considering doing it). But on the eve of the vote, Republicans promised to quit using the filibuster, except under extraordinary circumstances, if Democrats agreed to call off the rule change. Since then, however, Republicans broke their promise by blocking, or threatening to block, virtually every executive nominee and, just in the past couple of weeks, three appointments to the D.C. Circuit Court. They seemed to be openly daring Democrats to enact filibuster reform.
Under the circumstances, Majority Leader Harry Reid had little choice but to follow through on his prior directive. On a party line vote, he passed a narrow limitation on filibusters that only included executive nominees and judges. Legislative and other business would still be subject to filibuster. Of course, even this measured response that Republicans knew would be undertaken was met with furious indignation. Or so it seemed.
The peculiar thing about their melodramatic objections was that there was an underlying hint of celebration. After all, they didn’t stomp their feet and demand that the rule change be voided. They didn’t swear to reverse this assault on senate tradition and decorum, or repeal it as they swore to do with ObamaCare. Instead they reacted to this reform, that they considered to be akin to tyranny, by declaring that they would make it even worse if given the opportunity. That’s right. This was such an awful turn of events that, should they become the majority party in the senate, they would make the Democrats regret their audacity by exploiting the new filibuster-free environment to its fullest extent. Republicans even promised to expand it to include the elimination of the filibuster for legislation.
The parallel to this behavior, were it applied to ObamaCare, would be for Republicans to be so outraged by the insurance reform bill that they would push through universal health care just to show those darned Democrats. Or imagine the GOP so incensed at a Democratic increase in taxes on the rich that they swore to raise them even further when they got the chance. And yes, that doesn’t make any sense. But that’s exactly how they are responding to the filibuster reform.
Very little of the Republican response makes sense. They are arguing that Democrats will regret having nixed the filibuster because it will lead to more Supreme Court justices like Scalia and Thomas. Aside from the concession that Scalia and Thomas are obvious extremists, Republicans seem not to have noticed that they made it to the court despite never having been filibustered. They also seem not to have noticed that the reform passed by the Democrats doesn’t include Supreme Court justices, so it won’t affect future nominees to the high court. Nevertheless, this argument appears to be an invitation to filibuster Supreme Court nominees, an act that would certainly draw the ire of the GOP were it to occur. It should also be noted that the super-patriot Republicans are appalled by what they regard as an assault on the Constitution but, as they are so fond of saying, the word “filibuster” appears nowhere in that document.
Another tack that Republicans are taking is to assert that the changes made by Reid and the Democrats will result in an even more severe partisan divide in Congress. One question: How can the GOP get more partisan than it is now, when they even vote against their own initiatives if the President says he supports them? They could not possibly be more obstructionist if they tried.
So why would Republicans be so giddily looking forward to the new senate rules that prevent them from continuing their filibuster fest? Why would they pick this time to goad Democrats into pulling the nuclear trigger by breaking their promise and throwing up blockades to everything that has come down the pike, even after Democrats warned them that this would be the result? Could it be that they have a renewed sense of confidence that they might retake control of the senate in the wake of the post-ObamaCare turbulence? After having shattered every record for legislative obstructionism, senate Republicans may now be contemplating a favorable outcome in the 2014 midterms, as well as the 2016 presidential election. And if that should come to pass, they don’t want a bitter Democratic minority doing to them what they did to Obama for the past five years (even though Democrats generally do not engage in that sort of petulant behavior). So they create a situation where Reid is compelled to implement filibuster reform, and while pretending to oppose it, they are actually plotting to take advantage of it when they assume the control that they anticipate is coming to them.
It’s a devious plot, but one that may rely too much on their over-confidence in regaining the majority. Today, the President’s polling is in the gutter due to missteps in the execution of ObamaCare. But in a couple of months, if the website is repaired, and people are discovering new and better options for insurance coverage, the polls could just as quickly turn around and Democrats will be soaring past a Republican Party that the public resents for working so hard against their interests. Democrats could even sweep into the majority in the House putting them in a position to enact a broad agenda that includes immigration, guns, the environment, taxes, and more. In short, Republican arrogance may lead to the best hope for Obama to ensure and enhance his legacy.
Bottom line: If Republicans were truly upset with filibuster reform, they would be promising to undo it, just as they have done with ObamaCare? You don’t threaten to expand something that you profess to oppose. Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that they secretly support the new rules and may have worked covertly to bring them about. Their outrage is as fake as professional wrestling; as John Boehner’s tan; as a Tea Party intellectual. But their fakery is as real as a heart attack – which is covered under ObamaCare, a bill the GOP also tried, unsuccessfully, to filibuster.