By Joseph Lord
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted Democrats for their inconsistent attitudes toward the filibuster during the opening rounds of debate on two federal elections bills that Democrats are trying to pass by overturning the filibuster.
The Senate is scheduled to debate two elections bills, including the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, into Tuesday evening. The most significant aspect of these bills would be a return to an archaic federal statute requiring states to get federal approval before changing their election laws, a measure that critics say would effectively federalize elections.
Democrats say the bill is necessary to respond to the “new Jim Crow” of stricter voting laws passed in state legislatures across the nation in response to concerns over the 2020 election.
To address this alleged crisis, Democrats have tried to pass a slew of election bills since summer 2021, but all have faced death by filibuster due to almost-unanimous GOP opposition.
Now, in response to what they say is Republican “obstruction,” Democrats have formulated a new strategy: the weakening or abolition of the filibuster in order to pass bills that cannot get through the Senate under its normal rules. Technically, they can do this through the use of the so-called nuclear option, a parliamentary procedure that allows tweaks to Senate rules to be passed by a simple majority vote, but this is a course that lawmakers have long been loathe to take.
While nuking the filibuster or other rules can indeed allow a majority party to pass more partisan legislation, the decision can come back to haunt them when their opposition takes the majority.
Recently, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) announced their opposition to the scheme, citing long-held concerns that nuking the filibuster will change the identity of the deliberative upper chamber too dramatically.
Even after the two moderates announced their opposition to the move, Democrats decided to move ahead with the scheme anyways, and are holding a floor debate Tuesday before an expected Wednesday vote.
In one of the first speeches of the day, Leader McConnell blasted the majority party for their inconsistent attitudes toward the filibuster.
McConnell noted that despite their efforts to paint the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic,” Democrats used the process as recently as last week, when they used it to stop a Republican bill that would put sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Republicans have argued would help stall or halt altogether Putin’s territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe.
“But Democrats blocked it by denying 60 votes,” observed McConnell. He continued, “Now many of these same colleagues have spent weeks thundering—literally thundering—that the 60-vote threshold is an offensive tool of obstruction, a Jim Crow relic, [and] declaring that simple majorities should always get their way.”
“Ah, but late last week they literally wielded the 60-vote threshold themselves,” McConnell said.
The scene, McConnell judged, was “a useful reminder of just how fake—fake—the hysteria has been.”
“We already knew that Washington Democrats don’t have any principled opposition to Senate rules,” the GOP leader continued, noting that Democrats used the filibuster often under former President Donald Trump.
In fact, Democrats broke records with their use of the filibuster under Trump.
During Trump’s four years as president, Democrats used the filibuster a total of 314 times, equating to 78.5 filibusters per year. In contrast, during the entirety of President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure, Republicans used the filibuster 175 times, equating to roughly 21.9 filibusters per year.
While they were in the minority, Democrats were silent about the process. Only upon taking the majority have Democrats turned on the system, and only after it prevented them from passing partisan legislation over the objections of one-half of the U.S. Senate.
“You only have to go back a few years to read vigorous defenses of the filibuster from our Democratic colleagues and their allies,” McConnell continued.
McConnell pointed to remarks by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as a case in point.
While Democrats were in the minority, McConnell noted, Durbin said, “We need to protect the right of debate in the Senate, preserve checks and balances so that no one party can do whatever it wants, we need to preserve the voice of the minority in America.”
In 2017, then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was quoted as saying, “We need to find a way to build a firewall around the legislative filibuster.”
The same year, McConnell added, 32 Senate Democrats in a letter demanded that the filibuster threshold remain at 60 votes.
“So until the last couple years, Senators on both sides have understood [that] the Senate is not here to rubber-stamp massive changes by thin majorities,” McConnell argued. “This institution exists to do exactly the opposite.”
McConnell wrapped up his floor speech with a plea to Democrats not to change the fundamental character of the Senate, which he noted was intended to be a more deliberative body designed to ensure that only bills with “staying power” were passed.
Tuesday’s debate is only the latest scene in a drama that has steadily unfolded since summer 2021, when Democrats made their first concerted push to pass election legislation.
One of the first and most controversial bills put forward by Democrats was the For the People Act, a bill which would have forced states to allow convicted felons and those actively on probation or parole to vote, and which critics say would have effectively legalized voting by illegal aliens.
That bill, the most wide-ranging of all the election bills that Democrats have proposed, was shot down after Sen. Joe Manchin announced his opposition to the legislation.
Since then, Democrats have offered several bills with a more limited scope, but these have all been derailed by GOP opponents, who have argued that the bills are designed to unfairly benefit Democrats. Republicans have almost unanimously voted to filibuster each bill that has been brought to the floor.
Only one bill received any Republican support. That bill, a compromise bill authored by Sen. Manchin, received the support of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), but she is at the time of publication the only Republican to have given any support to any of the Democrats’ election bills.
On Wednesday, Democrats will bring the two bills to a floor vote, where they are widely expected to fail, before moving to attempt a rule change vote.
Given Manchin’s and Sinema’s opposition to a filibuster carve out, this effort too is likely to fail. While the scheme could still pass with the support of GOP swing voters like Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (R-Maine), or Lisa Murkowski, these have given no indication that they will flip.
Even Romney, who Democrats have eyed as a potential defector, criticized Democrats for their “all-or-nothing” attitude toward election legislation, leaving little chance for either of the bills being debated Tuesday to make it to President Joe Biden’s desk.