The biggest question in Washington for the next two years isn’t about a single policy or whether President Biden will expose himself to a press conference. It’s whether Democrats use their narrow Senate majority to kill the legislative filibuster rule requiring 60 votes in order to ram a radical agenda into law with a mere 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris.
Two Democrats — Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — promised at the start of the year that they wouldn’t vote to do so. But progressive and media pressure is building on the pair to renege on their pledges, as legislation passed by the House piles up at the Senate door. Democratic Senate leaders are vowing that they’ll find a way to evade the filibuster one way or another.
Republicans can see these signs, and on Tuesday Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear what would happen if they do kill the filibuster. It won’t be pretty.
“Some Democratic Senators seem to imagine this would be a tidy trade-off, if they could just break the rules on a razor-thin majority. Sure, it might damage the institution, but then nothing would stand between them and their entire agenda, a new era of fast-track policy-making,” the GOP leader said.
Don’t count on it, Mr. McConnell continued: “So let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues. Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like. None of us have served one minute in the Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent.”
He then explained what that could mean in practice if Republicans responded by withdrawing the unanimous consent required for the Senate to function: “I want our colleagues to imagine a world where every single task, every one of them, requires a physical quorum—which, by the way, the Vice President does not count in determining a quorum.”
That’s right. A quorum without unanimous consent is 51 Senators, and there are only 50 Democrats. If Republicans kept their nerve in opposition, Democrats couldn’t confirm nominees or vote on legislation. The Nancy Pelosi-Joe Biden agenda couldn’t move any more than if there were a filibuster.
Democrats may think this is a bluff, or that the public would revolt if Republicans ground Senate business to a halt. But are they willing to take that bet?
Democrats shouldn’t underestimate how united Senate Republicans would be, and how much GOP grass-roots support they’d have, if Democrats break the filibuster in a 50-50 Senate to federalize 50-state election laws, force mandatory unionization on 27 states with right-to-work laws, add two new states to pack the Senate, or pass the Green New Deal.
Mr. McConnell pointed out the obvious that majorities aren’t permanent and eventually Republicans would be in position to rule the Senate without a filibuster. Imagine what they might pass? Mr. McConnell gave a few examples—defunding Planned Parenthood—but for political flavor think GOP Sens. Josh Hawley and Rand Paul unbound.
These columns have been frustrated by many Democratic filibusters over the years, but the rule exists to protect minority rights and require large majorities for significant reforms. If Democrats blow it up on the narrowest of majority votes, they will own the unintended consequences.