The Politics of the Filibuster Makes For Some Strange Bedfellows

Once the shock and grief about the results of the 2016 election have set in, the big question becomes: how much damage with Trump and Republicans in Congress be able to do? In some circles, the assumption is that, with a majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate, Democrats have no way to oppose the Republican agenda. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Perhaps the single most important question that will determine what Republicans can do legislatively comes down to what they can pass through the Senate. They are likely to have a 52/48 majority (depending on the outcome of the run-off in Louisiana),  which means they’ll need at least 8 Democrats to join with their entire caucus in order to pass bills that are filibustered. On bills/nominations that are not filibustered, they can only afford to lose two votes. When/if that happens, VP Pence can break the tie, giving them a bare majority. But if they lose 3 votes, it’s all over.

A recent development makes that reality a huge issue. There has been some talk about the Republicans going “nuclear” to get rid of the filibuster. From conservative members of the House to Gov. Scott Walker, there have been demands to end the rule. As I wrote before, that presents an interesting dilemma for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who used the filibuster so successfully to obstruct President Obama and the Democrats.

But now, Senators Orin Hatch and Lindsay Graham have both gone on record to say that they won’t support changing the rules to get rid of the filibuster. As long as they maintain that position, they only need one other Republican vote to stop it from happening, given that changing the rules requires a simple majority of 51 votes. There are a number of Republican Senators who come to mind as possible candidates to join with Hatch and Graham. John McCain and Susan Collins are two that come to mind immediately.

For the Democrats, that poses the question of – to the extent it remains available – how and when to use the filibuster. Do they repeat the tradition of Republicans and implement total obstruction? Or do they use the threat of the filibuster to force Republicans into negotiations and the potential for compromise? In a flip of the script we’ve heard often in the past, Jamelle Bouie points out that the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party seems willing to say “yes” to working with Republicans.

Said Sanders: “If the president-elect is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families, I’m going to present some very real opportunities for him to earn my support.” Said Warren: “When President-elect Trump wants to take on these issues, when his goal is to increase the economic security of the middle-class families, then count me in.”

As the saying goes, “politics makes strange bedfellows.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.