How the GOP Is Inadvertently Destroying the Filibuster

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Jan. 10 2013 6:18 PM

How To Destroy the Filibuster

Republicans say they’ll block Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew. Democrats are using that threat to change the filibuster.

President Obama shakes hands with Jacob Lew.
President Obama shakes hands with Jack Lew after nominating him for Treasury Secretary

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, most business reporters confirmed Barack Obama’s next choice to lead the Treasury Department: White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Within hours, the same reporters got a statement from Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking member of the Budget Committee and a man who’ll have some say over whether Lew gets the job.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“Jack Lew must never be secretary of the Treasury,” Sessions said. During Lew’s short time as White House budget director (a role he held in Bill Clinton’s administration, too), he’d testified that the president’s numbers would start reducing the deficit. That was a “false assertion,” Sessions said, and “we need a secretary of the Treasury that the American people, the Congress, and the world will know is up to the task of getting America on the path to prosperity.” He would oppose Barack Obama’s nominee because the nominee had a dangerous amount in common with Barack Obama.

Sessions’ outrage was manna to an unexpected group of people: Democrats. For months, a group of freshman Democratic senators have been trying to nail down 51 votes to reform the filibuster. On Jan. 22, when the Senate votes on this congressional session’s rulebook, they’ll need to keep that group together. Every time a Republican threatens an Obama nominee, their job gets easier.

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“It really does highlight how the intentional paralysis of the Senate, through the use of a filibuster as a party tool, has gotten out of hand,” says Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, one of the authors of the reform plan. “Here are qualified people, the president has just won re-election, and [Republicans] are making it as difficult as possible to get them confirmed.”

Behold, the New Democratic Chutzpah. It shows no signs of slowing. Reporters ask the White House about a once-crazy-sounding idea—minting a $1 trillion platinum coin to avert a debt ceiling showdown—and don’t hear a “no.” Joe Biden hints that the president might take “executive action” to enhance gun laws, gets accused of enabling a “dictatorship,” and doesn’t walk it back. They wave the red cape, see how the bull reacts, and then wave the cape a little harder.

Filibuster reform, that perennial Lucy-and-the-football cause, might be the best example of this new tactic. Last week, Merkley joined New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin to officially roll out the possible filibuster changes. They would, if successful, eliminate the filibuster on the motions to proceed to votes, reduce debate on nominees from 30 hours to two hours (after the filibuster was broken), make it easier to establish a conference committee, and—most importantly to them—require anyone who filibusters to actually stand up and talk for as long as he or she wants to block the vote.

At the time, the senators said they had 51 votes to pass the new rules. (Only on the “first day” of Senate business, which will extend through Jan. 22, can the rules be reformed by a simple majority.) Three of those votes, perhaps, were dicey. And their biggest impediment was a rival plan, which included none of the filibuster-shortening reforms, from Sen. John McCain and Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. To succeed, they needed to hold their votes and convince the wafflers to bail on McCain-Levin.

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