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McConnell Is Holding Up the Senate to Protect the Filibuster

As minority leader under Obama, Mitch McConnell weaponized the filibuster to stymie the president’s legislative agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Democrats are shooting down an effort by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to protect the Senate filibuster as part of a power-sharing deal with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The modern filibuster maintains that passing a bill in the Senate requires 60 votes, which allows whichever party is the minority to block bills that the opposing party is trying to pass.

Schumer and McConnell met on Tuesday to hammer out the details of running a 50-50 Senate, which would usually produce a power-sharing resolution on logistics, so McConnell’s request to protect the filibuster is a step outside of what the meeting usually entails. The request has been reportedly dragging out their talks, leaving the Senate in limbo.

With the new Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, many in the party have been excited to pass policies that have been obstructed, one way or another, in past years by Republicans. Though Democrats hold the majority now, the filibuster is still a hurdle to getting bills passed. So Democratic lawmakers are frustrated by this request from McConnell, who is seemingly indicating his intention to block Democratic bills right out of the gate.

“McConnell is threatening to filibuster the Organizing Resolution which allows Democrats to assume the committee Chair positions. It’s an absolutely unprecedented, wacky, counterproductive request,” Brain Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted. “We won the Senate. We get the gavels.”

“So after Mitch McConnell changed the Senate rules at a blistering pace during his 6 years in charge, he is threatening to filibuster the Senate’s organizing resolution unless the Democratic majority agrees to never change the rules again,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) on Twitter.

Progressives have been advocating for abolishing the filibuster as it has become clear over the years that Republicans will block any progressive sounding policy, such as taking definitive action on the climate crisis. Many say that the only way for Democrats to get big, pressing agenda items done will be to implement a simple majority vote, requiring 51 votes, rather than the supermajority that the filibuster requires now.

The recent scuffle with McConnell has led progressives like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) to re up their calls to abolish the filibuster. More centrist Democrats have demurred on the issue. President Joe Biden opposed it initially during his campaign last year but turned around partially after pressure from progressives.

For some, the issue isn’t necessarily partisan but rather about democracy: The filibuster did not always exist, and it’s only become more and more weaponized since its introduction in the early 1900s. In the early days of the filibuster, the Senate only had to vote about once a year to end it, according to Vox. Since 2010, it has taken the Senate an average of 80 votes per year to do the same.

“The filibuster has turned the Senate from an institution in which bills passed when a majority of senators support them to an institution in which bills can only pass, with rare exceptions, with the backing of a 60-vote supermajority,” Vox explains. “And since 60-vote supermajorities are exceedingly rare in the Senate, the result is that the Senate has lost the ability to routinely pass legislation, solve problems, and deliver the solutions Americans vote for.”

Historically, the filibuster has been used to stymie civil rights bills, MSNBC pointed out: “The filibuster is an invention of a time when slaveholding Southern senators sought to turn their minority into a weapon…. The practice became an art form for Republicans under Minority Leader Mitch McConnell” in the Barack Obama years. Ten years ago, one of the nation’s last best bets for climate policy, for instance, was destroyed partially by the filibuster.

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