Senate Republicans are opening up a new line of attack against Democrats in the final weeks of the campaign: The legislative filibuster.
GOP senators, during floor speeches and press conferences this week, are pointing to chatter that a Democratic-controlled Senate could nix the 60-vote filibuster to make their case to voters that the party has shifted too far to the left in the run up to the election.
“I hope that this debate, discussion that we are having … about what could happen if the Democrats get the majority and have the presidency in the House in a new government in January, all the things that they could do if you strip away the protections that the minority has in the United States Senate. And I hope the American people think long and hard about that when they vote this fall,” Sen. (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters.
Thune’s comments come after Senate Majority Leader (R-Ky.) warned that Democrats would “disfigure” and “vandalize” the Senate if they win back the majority in November and gut the filibuster next year.
“I think the American people should know what it means if the Senate shifts control and you heard it. Eliminating the filibuster, D.C. statehood, Puerto Rican statehood and packing the courts. That’s what you get if you change the Senate,” McConnell said on Tuesday, asked if Republicans were highlighting these issues because they were worried they could lose the Senate.
He added that voters “need to be aware” that they face a choice in November.
“Do they want to enable the Democrats to run rough shod over the country by changing the basic structure here?” McConnell asked.
The GOP warning signs over the fate of the legislative filibuster comes as they are battling to hold onto the Senate majority. Democrats believe they have momentum in the final stretch of the election, though several races remain rated as a “toss up.”
If Democrats take back the Senate they are expected to face intense pressure from activists, and a growing number of lawmakers, to get rid of the 60-vote legislative filibuster. Supporters of using the “nuclear option,” where they could change the rules with only a simple majority, argue the higher procedural hurdle stands in the way of top Democratic priorities including healthcare and climate change legislation.
Schumer, who is up for reelection in 2022, has opened the door to nixing the filibuster, arguing that Democrats won’t let Republicans block their agenda if they win back the White House and Senate, and hold on to the House majority, in November.
“Should we get the majority we know American needs strong and bold change. And we will figure out the way to do it. Nothing’s on the table. Nothing’s off the table,” Schumer told reporters on Tuesday asked about McConnell’s criticism.
It’s unclear if Democrats will have the votes, even if they win back the majority, to get rid of the 60-vote legislative filibuster. Any Democratic majority is expected to be narrow, meaning they will likely need most if not all of their caucus. Several Democratic senators have vowed that they will not get rid of the filibuster, though they would face a wave of calls to do so.
Activists and some Democratic senators have brushed off McConnell’s rhetoric, arguing that the GOP leader has contributed to the growing polarization that has them increasingly viewing nixing the 60-vote legislative filibuster in 2021 as a necessary step.
“Sen. McConnell is clearly scared of losing his ability to block critically-needed job creation bills, the Voting Rights Act, plans to tackle the climate crisis, common sense gun safety laws, and more – and he absolutely should be,” Fix Our Senate spokesman Eli Zupnick said in a statement. “We appreciate Sen. McConnell going to the Senate floor … to shine a spotlight on his obstruction and the work that needs to get done to stop it.”
Democrats got rid of the 60-vote filibuster in 2013 for most nominations, while Republicans nixed the same hurdle for Supreme Court nominees in 2017.
The debate over the future of the legislative filibuster and the inability to reach agreements on big recent issues like police reform and coronavirus relief boiled over on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
Sen. (R-Alaska), a moderate GOP senator, warned that she believed the Senate as an institution was “failing.”
“I would hope that we look very, very closely at where we are right now because we are using our own rules to do damage to the institution of the Senate. So let’s not take the last tool that holds us in check, this filibuster, and throw it away as well. Because we will regret it,” Murkowski said.
Sen. (D-Ill.)—who along with Thune was on the floor to discuss the issue—countered that he was open to ideas short of nixing the legislative filibuster but that the current status quo of the Senate wasn’t acceptable.
“We have stopped legislating. We have stopped debating. We have stopped amending,” he said. “And you say, ‘boy, we have to preserve this. We have to do everything we can to preserve this.’ We know better than that. This isn’t the Senate that we are witnessing. This is some aberration.”
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