That F-word and Mitch McConnell

I usually take this time to comment on Texas politics and defend societal and constitutional aspects that deserve defending, such as the integrity of Texas government or public education from fanatically failed concepts, but in recent days that “f” word resurfaced in American politics; filibuster.

In a recent speech in Georgia, President Biden finally made it clear he favored changing Senate rules to pass a federal voting rights bill, a key part of his legislative agenda. President Biden said he was “tired of being silent” on the issue and asked Republicans if they want to be on the side of Dr. Martin Luther King or George Wallace?

President Joe Biden

The day after his speech Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the president calling his speech “incoherent, incorrect, and beneath his office.” Even before that, in a January 4th news conference, Sen. McConnell admitted there was “hypocrisy in politics” but also noted there is “no such thing as a narrow exception” to the filibuster. Really, Senator?

Truth be told, the filibuster has long been a source of frustration for the majority Senate Party. But Sen. McConnell’s statement is puzzling because exceptions to the filibuster have become the norm in American politics, especially deriving from the Blue Grass State’s senior Senator.

In 2005, President George W. Bush made several nominations to lower federal courts. Several of them were met with filibusters from then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democrats. To the incredible frustration of Senate Republicans and President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened the Democrats with a “nuclear option” to confirm the nominations. It is worth mentioning Frist had the support of Sen. Mitch McConnell on this maneuver. The “nuclear option” is a tactic used by the Majority Party to reduce the number of votes to invoke cloture. For further clarification, cloture is a procedural vote that ends debate on the issue at hand. In 2005, the Senate needed 60 votes to invoke cloture on all issues. When Majority Leader Frist threatened to lower cloture’s threshold from 60 to a simple majority, Senate Democrats were unhappy. There was a lot of teeth gnashing but a “gang of 14” came to an agreement and the nuclear option was avoided.

Senator Harry Reid with Senate Democrats

Fast forward to 2013, and there is a similar story but different ending. Then, President Obama made nominations to lower federal courts and other places but those were met by filibusters from then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans. After threats by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to “go nuclear” and broken promises from Sen. McConnell to stop filibustering, Sen. Reid felt his back was against the wall. In November of that year, the Senate invoked the nuclear option for only lower court nominations, which is a “narrow exception” for the filibuster.

Senator Mitch McConnell

Four years later at the end of January, President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, filling the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Democrats became upset over, then, Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s promise to confirm Gorsuch, after a year of blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination. Senate Democrats planned to filibuster the nomination but Majority Leader McConnell invoked the nuclear option, emasculating the minority Party in the final confirmation vote. This “narrow exception” now leaves cloture to only legislative matters as it now stands, only a majority vote is needed to invoke cloture on all judicial nominees.

Sen. McConnell on Senate Floor

This breakdown of recent history on the filibuster is important because now Minority Leader McConnell is grasping for the filibuster for what he deems is necessary while when he led the upper chamber as Majority Leader, he steamrolled the agenda. To be fair, one could say the same about Sen. Reid but he is no longer with us, let alone in the Senate. McConnell is.

McConnell’s hypocrisy is nothing new. Take his about-face on replacing Supreme Court Justices during a presidential election year for example. If one remembers correctly, he said in 2016, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice.” Come 2020, after the death of Justice Ginsburg he took sang a different tune. He said “Americans re-elected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary. Once again, we will keep our promise. President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

Judge Barrett with Sen. McConnell

While it is completely fine for the Sen. McConnell to lead his Party in the Senate, we as informed citizens must see the theatrics for what it is; power plays. How else can anyone explain his once support for the nuclear option, then opposition to it, and then invoking it? It is the same reason he blocked Garland’s Supreme Court nomination in 2016, only to support Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination four years later. This is the same rationale for the master of the “narrow exception” to the filibuster, now being against such an exception.

This has nothing to do with institutionalism but everything to do with power and currently he is out of it. But in the spirit of the The Terminator, he “will be back.”

U.S. Senate Chamber

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Drew Landry

Drew Landry

Government Prof; Baseball fan; Political junkie; @drewllandry on Twitter