Partisan rancor over the future of the filibuster in the United States Senate flared up on Tuesday when a fiery debate erupted between Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
The New York Times notes:
Mr. McConnell was referring to the prospect that Democrats might resort to a move known as the ‘nuclear option,’ to force a change in the Senate rules that allow senators to block action on any bill unless proponents can muster 60 votes to move forward. That would effectively destroy the filibuster, allowing the majority party — currently the Democrats — to muscle through any measure on a simple majority vote.
The Senate operates under arcane rules that are often bypassed by the use of what is known as unanimous consent agreement where no senator objects. Mr. McConnell threatened that if Democrats made significant changes to the filibuster rules, Republicans would deny consent even on the most mundane of matters and require senators to be present and voting to do virtually anything, effectively bogging down the Senate.
Some Senate Democrats and progressive activists have called on Democrats to weaken the filibuster to push ahead with a voting rights bill and other liberal legislative priorities over Republican objections while Democrats control both Congress and the White House.
As it stands, any member of the Senate can stall or kill legislation without even having to show up in person to do the dirty work. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) demonstrated this last week when he forced a word-for-word reading of the 521-page American Recovery Plan Act of 2021 before the Senate voted to pass it. Instead of exerting any actual effort, however, Johnson had a staffer ramble through the 521-page bill.
Democrats argue that the filibuster is undemocratic because the existing model gives too much power to whoever invokes it and allows the minority to thwart the will of the people.
McConnell – desperately pecking for any remaining crumbs of power that would permit him to block President Joe Biden’s pro-worker agenda – threatened to corral his caucus into blocking everything that Democrats propose if the filibuster is significantly weakened or eliminated.
“Everything that Democratic Senates did to Presidents [George W.] Bush and [Donald] Trump, everything the Republican Senate did to President [Barack] Obama, would be child’s play compared to the disaster that Democrats would create for their own priorities if — if — they break the Senate. The most mundane task of the Biden presidency would actually be harder — harder, not easier — for Democrats in a post-nuclear Senate,” McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor.
“Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues,” he continued. “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 a Senate that was completely drained of comity, and this is an institution that requires unanimous consent to turn the lights on before noon.”
Durbin fired back, explaining that Republican abuse of the filibuster – mostly by McConnell – has essentially crippled the Senate’s ability to do its job.
“Republicans have beaten the old filibuster to the point where it is hardly recognizable. So for Republicans to come to the floor and plead for hanging on to this tradition is actually pleading for the Senate to continue to do less and less each year. That must change,” Durbin wrote on Twitter.
Republicans have beaten the old filibuster to the point where it is hardly recognizable. So for Republicans to come to the floor and plead for hanging on to this tradition is actually pleading for the Senate to continue to do less and less each year. That must change. pic.twitter.com/3lntVDVaff
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) March 16, 2021
Watch Durbin’s address below, courtesy of C-SPAN:
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Brandon is a political writer for the Hill Reporter specializing in current events, breaking news, and scientific discovery. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University. He lives in New York City.