Party leaders change tune now that they are in minority.
By Burgess Everett
2/3/15 – 7:30 PM EST
Senate Democrats are falling back in love with the filibuster.
After eight years of complaining about obstructionism, the Senate’s new Democratic minority is embracing some of the same tools Republicans had wielded so skillfully to jam the legislative machinery. On Tuesday, Democrats used the filibuster to stop a bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security — and roll back President Barack Obama’s immigration policies — dead in its tracks.
Democrats’ relationship with the filibuster had been on the rocks when they ran the Senate, a time when the GOP regularly used the procedural weapon to disrupt the majority’s agenda. Democrats responded by gutting the filibuster on nominations, making “Republican obstruction” a go-to explanation for the Senate’s gridlock and complaining bitterly when the GOP minority blocked debate from even opening on bills.
Then came Tuesday’s 51-48 vote blocking the DHS bill. This was the first time a Democratic minority had blocked a bill from coming to the floor for debate since Aug. 3, 2006, when Democrats stifled legislation that would have raised the minimum wage and decreased the estate tax.
Casual Senate watchers could be forgiven for thinking that Democrats and Republicans had simply exchanged talking points after the 2014 election. Now in the majority, Republicans are the ones accusing the minority of keeping the Senate from getting things done.
“They’re refusing to debate a bill they’d like to change,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the Democrats. He added: “It’s rather an, honestly, absurd position. I’m glad I didn’t have to come out here and make that argument with you all, because I think it’s a pretty hard argument to make with a straight face.”
McConnell, who had made countless procedural arguments against Democratic legislation during his stewardship of the minority, said Democrats instead should allow debate on the bill and offer amendments.
More filibusters may come in a matter of days if Republicans follow through on their threats to make Democrats repeatedly reject the DHS-immigration proposal. It appears Democrats will block any attempt to bring a DHS funding bill with riders to the floor.
Democrats have always supported keeping the filibuster for legislation, leaving it in place even when they gutted the 60-vote threshold on executive branch nominations in 2013. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set out this year prepared to use the procedural tool to parry aside legislation that his caucus broadly opposed — and the DHS and its immigration policies fit the bill perfectly.
Use of the filibuster — which allows individual members to require 60 votes to begin and end debate — is something Democrats often criticized when they were in the majority just two months ago. In tandem with demanding votes on amendments, Republicans routinely used procedural tools to block legislation, elevating their use of the tactic to historic levels.
“So often in the last Congress we were accused of not being ready to end the debate,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “But we were seldom accused of not starting the debate.”
In fact, the previous Congress’ Democratic Senate majority was incensed by the myriad occasions when Republicans blocked debate from starting on legislation. They were particularly offended when the GOP demanded amendments, then prevented debate from starting on the underlying bill, including with legislation on intelligence reform or pay equity. Bills can’t be amended if the floor debate can’t start.
Even after Reid vowed to open the amendment process on the intelligence bill last December, the GOP stuffed it, prompting Reid to lash out at Republicans who “wouldn’t even let the Senate debate the legislation.” In April, when a pay equity bill failed to make it to the floor, Reid said he was “at a loss as to why anyone would decline to debate such an important issue.”
Of Tuesday’s Democratic filibuster, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) fumed that “Democrats never blush. They always do whatever is convenient at the time.”
The bill, which would fund Jeh Johnson’s Department of Homeland Security, was the first that a Democratic minority had blocked from coming to the floor for debate since Aug. 3, 2006.
But Democrats argued that their vote Tuesday is not equivalent to Republicans’ routine practice of halting legislation and stalling nominations over the past eight years.
“We’ve been crystal clear from Day One that we will fight bills we oppose,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid. “The difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats won’t filibuster every bill regardless of the merit. Republicans would’ve filibustered a motion to blow your nose.”
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