In January, Republicans celebrated taking control of both gavels on Capitol Hill and promised to advance legislation important to their conservative base. After months of thwarted efforts and leadership compromises with Democrats to fund the government, the House majority is in disarray and Senate Republicans are considering a change in a longstanding rule that empowers the minority — a key function of the Senate as envisioned by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.
While the so-called filibuster rule allows any senator to slow things down and to keep bills from moving to the Senate floor for consideration, it’s usually used by the minority to extract compromise from the majority. It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, or in the parlance of Capitol Hill, “to invoke cloture” and cut off endless debate, allowing a measure to get a vote.
Senate Republicans have 54 members, short of the 60-vote threshold. That six-vote difference has allowed Democrats to block all 12 of the Republican-backed appropriations bills. Democrats want Republicans to negotiate an end to the sequester. It also let them thwart plans by Republicans to cut funding earlier this year for the Department of Homeland Security necessary to implement President Barack Obama’s executive orders allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country.
Additionally, Democrats have used the rule to block Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act, and even kept Senate Republicans from voting against the president’s recent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program — all big issue for conservative voters.
The House Freedom Caucus, an invitation-only group of more than 40 far-right Republicans, refused to back a short-term funding measure at the end of last month, in part, because it included money for Planned Parenthood. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would not risk a government shutdown over the issue because Republicans did not have the votes to override a veto. That frustrated members of the Freedom Caucus and other House conservatives who refused to compromise on the issue, preferring instead to force a government shutdown.
The impasse prompted Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to announce plans to step down. After that, Boehner quickly moved to pass the two-month continuing resolution with a majority of Democratic votes.
Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Sarah Binder says many House Republicans want the Senate to change its rules to put more legislation on the president’s desk. “Over and over, House Republicans find that their priorities hit a roadblock in the Senate. If they could get an up or down vote they’d have a chance on most of these issues, because it just takes 51 votes to pass something in the Senate, but it takes 60 votes to put the issue on the floor.”
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, is pushing Senate Republican leaders, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to change the Senate’s rule on filibusters. “At some point folks have to stop worrying about the history and the institution, they have to listen to the people and what the people want, which is action,” Wagner said. She added that voters are angry and frustrated at the Republican’s apparent inability to get anything done.
Wagner also warns Senate leaders to “take note” of what is happening in the House. “Because, we’re going to get leadership that’s going to call the Senate out about the fact that they’re not moving our 346 good pieces of legislation, because they won’t even have a debate on it because they insist on a 60 vote threshold, that’s baloney and the people are fed up.”
Binder says the frustration on the part of House members is “perennial; this isn’t a new rule.” She also says the chance that Senate Republicans would pursue getting rid of the filibuster because of the frustration of House Republicans is “nil.”
The Senate has modified the filibuster based on its own frustrations. When Republicans were in the minority, they filibustered hundreds of the president’s appointments. “We saw Democrats, under Harry Reid, when he was the majority leader in 2013, whittle back the filibuster so that you can no longer filibuster judicial appointments and executive appointments,” Binder told St. Louis Public Radio.
Senate Republicans certainly have their own frustrations. Blunt quickly points to those 12 appropriations bills. “There’s no excuse, in my view, for not having the appropriations bills on the Senate floor. The appropriations committee, for the first time in six years, produced every bill … early and in almost all cases with big bipartisan votes.”
Blunt asked, "What would be wrong with debating those bills?”
St. Louis Public Radio has confirmed that Senate Majority Leader McConnell, has asked Blunt, and others, to review the current rules in the Senate to consider whether any procedures should be revised to start the next Congress.
When asked about Wagner’s call for the Senate to change its rule, Blunt, who chairs the Rules Committee said, “I think the goal here is to find out if there are obstacles in the current Senate rules to putting legislation on the president’s desk and I’ve been saying that we should look at that. I think that’s something we’re going to turn to as we look toward the next Congress.”
Blunt also says that, with a closely divided Congress and before the outcome of the next election is known, now may be a good time to begin looking at a rule change “that doesn’t necessarily benefit either side, but does benefit the institution.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she hopes Republicans don’t go down this road. She also questions whether such a move would benefit Republicans without a Republican president. “If they’re confident, like 99 percent confident, that they’re going to have a Republican president, then maybe it would be tempting to them, but if they’re going to have a Democratic president, they don’t gain anything,” because it's unlikely they’d have enough votes to override vetoes.
McCaskill also says that “more thoughtful Republicans” will realize that such a move will hurt them the next time they’re in the minority.
Senate Historian Emeritus Donald Ritchie says the rules of the House have evolved to “allow the majority to rule. As long as the majority sticks together they can prevail and they don't need to consult with the minority,” but he says the rules of the Senate have evolved to “give muscle to the minority,” in keeping with the function of the Senate, as seen by the founders of the Constitution.
Ritchie says, the framers designed the Senate to slow things down, cool passions and encourage compromise. “In the Senate, it’s a daily requirement of the majority leader to seek support from the minority leader if he wants to get anything of any kind of consequence done,” Ritchie told St. Louis Public Radio. “In the House, it’s seen as a sign of weakness if the speaker has to ask the minority party for any help at all.”
Ritchie is quick to offer a civics lesson of sorts for anyone frustrated by the inefficiencies of government. "Our Constitution divides up power between three branches, and then divides legislative power between two houses. Everything takes time and everything requires you to negotiate and to compromise and to try to find some sort of common ground, that's actually deliberately written into the system." He says, had the framers wanted an efficient government, there would have been no need for the Senate.