Why Mitch McConnell won’t get rid of the filibuster

The Republican leader has more to lose than to gain from eliminating his chamber’s most hated procedural quirk

Eric Garcia
Monday 09 May 2022 14:23
<p>Mitch McConnell</p>

Mitch McConnell

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview with USA Today over the weekend that he would not get rid of the filibuster despite expressing openness to passing national legislation to restrict abortion. The remarks come after the leak of a draft opinion from the US Supreme Court that revealed the court’s conservative majority intends to overturn Roe v Wade,

“No carveout of the filibuster – period,” he insisted.

The comment might be puzzling to some given that, as Senate Majority Leader, Mr McConnell eliminated the filibuster to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch. In fact, you could argue that nobody is more responsible for the apparently imminent death of Roe than Mr McConnell: he blocked Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland after Justice Antonin Scalia died; confirmed Brett Kavanaugh despite accusations of sexual assault (which Mr Kavanaugh vociferously denied), a row that galvanized the Republican base to defeat four Democratic Senators in the 2018 midterms; and rammed through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination weeks before the 2020 presidential election.

But the common line for many Republicans is that it was Democrats who began the process of eliminating the filibuster for judicial confirmations. They base this argument on the actions of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2013, when he invoked the so-called “nuclear option” for cabinet and judicial nominations except for the Supreme Court. This he did, of course, after Republicans obstructed Mr Obama’s nominees across the board.

In the same vein, Mr McConnell would only touch the filibuster if lightning strikes twice. As Bloomberg reporter (and friend of the newsletter) Steven Dennis tweeted on Saturday, he warned Democrats about a “scorched earth Senate” if they touched the filibuster – but if they did so, they could thwart his efforts to obstruct a minimum wage hike, campaign finance rules, voting rights reform and statehood for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.

Senate Democrats were unable to pass voting rights legislation earlier this year because their Republican colleagues held the line against it. That forced Joe Biden’s party into an internal debate about changing the filibuster rules, a suggestion rendered moot by the opposition of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The same dynamic will play out this week as Democrats hold a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act: Mr Manchin is opposed to the bill, but it wouldn’t get through the chamber even if he changed his mind. It can only pass with 60 votes, and no Republican will break ranks to vote for it.

Quite simply, Mr McConnell has more to lose than gain if he removes the filibuster. He’s resisted temptations to touch it before; after Republicans failed in their myriad attempts to repeal Obamacare, Donald Trump pushed him to change Senate procedures to abolish it by simple majority vote, but was rebuffed. (Senate Minority Whip John Thune noted that same story to your dispatcher after Democrats’ voting rights bill failed in January.)

Another reason Mr McConnell doesn’t need the filibuster gone: Republicans could easily pick up as many as four seats this coming cycle (in Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire and Arizona) and as many as eight in 2024. That total, though admittedly a best-case scenario, would give him a filibuster-proof majority. At that point, the threshold would become irrelevant.

But there’s also another sly rationale to keep it in place: If Mr McConnell sees that legislation to restrict abortion is politically unfeasible and his caucus count is below 60, he can always just blame the filibuster.

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