Four years ago today, on April 7, 2017, some 61 senators pledged their fealty to the filibuster amid talk in the Senate of abolishing it.
“[W]e are united in our determination to preserve the ability of members to engage in extended debate when bills are on the Senate floor,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote in the letter, coordinated by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Chris Coons, D-Del.
“We are mindful of the unique role the Senate plays in the legislative process, and we are steadfastly committed to ensuring that this great American institution continues to serve as the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the senators, 31 of them Democrats, wrote.
The letter, addressed to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and then-Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., concluded: “Therefore, we are asking you to join us in opposing any effort to curtail the existing rights and prerogatives of senators to engage in full, robust, and extended debate as we consider legislation before this body in the future.”
Fast-forward to today. The only difference between then and now is the party in control of Congress and the White House—and whose legislative agenda is now being stymied by the filibuster.
It’s not clear how many of those 31 Democratic senators who signed the Collins-Coons letter still regard the filibuster with the same reverence they did just four years ago.
We may soon find out whether their support for extended debate and the Senate’s role as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” was genuine or whether it just mimics the risible March 2004 flip-flop of then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on a supplemental appropriations bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” he said.
We already know the answer to that question with respect to at least one of those senators. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who was among the signatories, announced March 18 that he’s now for doing away with the filibuster. “I cannot support the continued abuse of the filibuster in the United States Senate,” he said.
But “abuse,” like beauty, appears to be in the eye of the beholder. According to research by my Heritage Foundation colleague Thomas Jipping, Heinrich voted 95 times to filibuster legislative measures over the past six years, coincident with GOP control of the Senate and the presidency of Republican Donald Trump.
Schumer, in 2005, then in a Senate minority that was using the filibuster to block Republican President George W. Bush’s agenda, reminded his GOP colleagues that Senate rules “written into the Constitution talk about the Senate as a preserve of the minority.”
“The Founding Fathers called it the ‘cooling saucer,’” Schumer said, citing the upper chamber’s role of tempering what comes out of the House, which has no similar constraints on the majority.
Now that he’s the Senate’s majority leader and there’s a president of his own party in the White House, Schumer would send that saucer flying if he could.
That’s because Republican filibusters are now all that stand in the way of the Democrats’ radical, far-left agenda of LGBT special rights, the federal takeover of elections, the Green New Deal, gun control, open-borders immigration, packing the Supreme Court, D.C. statehood, “free” college, and more.
For his part, President Joe Biden has taken to echoing his old boss, former President Barack Obama, in calling the Senate filibuster a racist “Jim Crow relic.”
Surely, they don’t think we’re unaware that they both not only filibustered to thwart legislation they opposed when they were in the Senate, but also spoke out vehemently in the filibuster’s defense?
Obama was a senator from Illinois on April 13, 2005, when he argued against ending the filibuster, contending that would allow one party to “change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions, while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.”
“If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse,” warned Obama, who filibustered about two dozen bills during his short stint in the Senate, according to Jipping.
Those bills included legislation to repeal the federal estate tax, to ban taking a minor across state lines for an abortion, and to ease regulations on leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
About six weeks later on May 23, 2005, Biden—then in his sixth term in the Senate—took to the Senate floor to decry the proposed abolition of the filibuster variously as “an example of the arrogance of power,” “a fundamental power grab by the majority party … designed to change the reading of the Constitution,” and the “nuclear option,” one that would “emasculate the Senate.”
Yet, Biden voted to filibuster legislative measures 137 times during his Senate career, according to Jipping, senior legal fellow with Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
“You cannot change the Senate rules by a pure majority vote,” Biden thundered.
But that was then, and this is now.
Thankfully, at least two sensible Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, oppose abolishing the filibuster. (Manchin was one of the 31 Democratic letter-signers; Sinema wasn’t in the Senate at the time.)
For the country’s sake, Manchin and Sinema must stand their ground in the face of what must surely be intense pressure from their Senate Democratic colleagues and from the party’s far-left base to go along with their hypocritical 180-degree about-face on the filibuster.
In an interview published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, Sinema rightly observed that the problem lies not with the Senate’s rules, but with senators themselves.
“When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” she said. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”
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