Bring on the Filibuster Fight

According to Politico’s Manu Raju, Republicans are threatening to “shut down” the Senate if Harry Reid proceeds with limits on the use of filibusters as part of the Senate rules promulgated at the beginning of the next Congress in January:

Here’s what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering: banning filibusters used to prevent debate from even starting and House-Senate conference committees from ever meeting. He also may make filibusters become actual filibusters — to force senators to carry out the nonstop, talkathon sessions.

Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules.

“I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.”

“It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”

This raises the rather obvious question of exactly what Republicans could do to make the Senate less functional than it already is under the de facto 60-vote requirement for all legislation that they have so recently introduced?

If Senate Democrats back down in the face of this threat, they will risk a potentially permanent power shift to small-population states unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1960s. More practically, it will be a rare moment when conservative obstructionists do not hold at least 40 Senate seats.

Progressives need to put some serious pressure on Democratic Senators to make filibuster reform a non-negotiable agenda item. It’s a bigger deal in the long run than tax rates or spending levels, and will have a large bearing over the leverage each party has in negotiations over tax rates or spending levels. Certainly threats from Republicans to obstruct the work of the Senate if the filibuster rules are changed should be greeted with the derision they deserve.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.