Filibuster Opponents Have Gone Quiet Since Democrats Lost the Senate

The shoe is now on the other foot.

: A U.S. flag flies in front of the dome of the U.S. Capitol February 12, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

A large coalition of filibuster opponents has gone silent after Democrats lost the Senate in January, while numerous Democratic senators who were vocal in their criticism of the blocking tool have similarly ceased to be vocal on the issue. 

Now in the minority after eight years of Senate control, Democrats have re-discovered the value of the 60-vote threshold, using it regularly to block passage of bills that are controversial but backed by a majority of senators.

An upcoming Senate vote on a resolution of disapproval of President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran provides the clearest example of how Democrats are using the filibuster to great effect. They appear to have the necessary 41 votes to block the resolution and bolster the deal by avoiding a threatened presidential veto and veto-override battle that proponents fear could damage the credibility of the accord.

While Democrats were in control, the progressive activist group launched a campaign to "End Filibuster Abuse" and issued petition after petition calling for rules changes to prevent a minority of senators from quietly blocking legislation, instead calling on them to at least talk on the floor.

But on Tuesday, after 41 Democrats declared their support for the Iran deal, the anti-war group celebrated "victory" and echoed Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's past support for 60-vote thresholds.

"41 votes for the Iran deal means something profound: We've finally learned the lesson of the Iraq war. Today, the hawks lost, and the American people won," said Political Action executive director Ilya Sheyman. "It's time for Republicans to stop holding this diplomatic agreement hostage. Sen. Mitch McConnell has made it clear over the last six years that he believes 60 votes are required to pass important legislation."

Asked if still supports filibuster reform, spokesman Brian Stewart sidestepped and said the group has "known from the beginning that we'd need 60 votes in the Senate to pass a resolution on the Iran deal."

The Fix the Senate Now coalition, which pushed hard against the filibuster under Democratic rule, has stopped pushing since Republicans took over. The coalition, headed by progressive entities like the union Communications Workers of America and the environmental group Sierra Club, hasn't released a statement on its website since December 2014, when it praised Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid for confirming many Obama nominees and for eliminating the 60-vote threshold in 2013 for most presidential nominations. A review of the group's Twitter feed reveals that it has refocused its efforts on getting money out of politics.

"The coalition hasn't been as active this year," said Michael Earls, a spokesman for Fix the Senate Now. But he said it still supports reforms to end the 60-vote threshold to begin (but not end) debate and require filibustering senators to talk on the floor while they obstruct, ideas that were floated in recent years by Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico. Earls added that "most of the focus when weighing in has been on nominations," not legislative filibusters.

A section of the group's website says the Senate is still broken. "Throughout the Obama presidency," it says, "Senate Republicans have turned 60 votes into the default threshold for nearly every order of Senate business; something unprecedented in American history."

Though Merkley and Udall haven't changed course on their filibuster proposals, they haven't pushed for them either this year. Both support the Iran deal and are expected to support a filibuster of the resolution to disapprove of it.

"If this debate prompts his colleagues to have a serious discussion about permanently changing the rules and reforming the filibuster, I'm sure Senator Merkley would welcome that opportunity," Merkley spokeswoman Martina McLennan said in an e-mail.

On Tuesday on the Senate floor, McConnell urged colleagues not to "hide behind procedural obfuscation to shield the president or our individual views" in the Iran debate. Reid's deputy chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, fired back.

Like McConnell before him, Reid has proven adept as minority leader at uniting his caucus behind filibusters. In February, Democrats repeatedly filibustered a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security because it blocked Obama's executive actions on immigration, forcing Republicans to relent and fund the president's plans. In August, Democrats filibustered a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, a move that could spark a shutdown battle ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.

The zig-zagging on the filibuster lends credence to the impression that positions on the longstanding Senate rule are based more in opportunism than principle.