Time to Call Mitch McConnell’s Bluff on the Filibuster

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell indulged himself on Tuesday in some cosplay of himself as Senate Majority Leader, and it was farce. The inspiration for his laughable performance was the filibuster, that old, racist parliamentary weapon used time and again as a dagger aimed at the heart of legislative progress. A growing chorus in that chamber believe the filibuster’s dubious usefulness has come and gone, and if President Biden’s nation-in-crisis agenda has any hope of seeing daylight, the dagger must be sheathed.

Ol’ Mitch ain’t having it, though. He puffed himself up like an adder and hissed a warning to the assembled. “Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues,” said McConnell. “Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin, to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like. I want our colleagues to imagine a world where every single task, every one of them, requires a physical quorum.”

This is parliament-speak for a threat to gum up the works, all the works, all the time. A quorum in the Senate requires 51 members to be present in the chamber. Every piece of business before the Senate would be frozen in place until enough warm bodies are present in the room. Those who watch C-SPAN know the Senate chamber is empty most of the time, with Senators delivering oratory to the backs of unoccupied chairs.

If McConnell were to pull this stunt, it would almost certainly come in combination with an order for every Republican Senator to avoid that chamber like it was radioactive. Democrats only have 50 Senators, plus Vice President Harris, so achieving a quorum absent all Republicans would require every Democratic Senator plus the vice president to be in the room for every bit of work that needed doing. It would be, in sum, an enormous pain in the ass.

“This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change,” McConnell continued. “It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a 100-car pile-up, nothing moving.”

A version of this brand of obstructionism has been playing out in the House of Representatives, where disgraced “Q Party” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has been making a mess of the process in retaliation for losing all of her committee assignments. Most bills in the House pass or fail by simple voice vote, but Rep. Greene has insisted that dozens of bills be voted on by roll call, which means everybody needs to be there. The tactic has begun to get deeply under the skin of her Republican colleagues, but Greene shows no sign of stopping.

Given everything happening in the country — COVID, mass unemployment, spreading hunger, the threat of mass evictions, an immigration crisis, a violent uprising from the far right of McConnell’s own party, a climate in dire crisis and a frontal assault on the basic right to vote — McConnell’s threat is nothing short of monstrous.

It is also flatly pathetic, the howl of a party bereft of ideas beyond rolling rocks into the road to delay the process. It is tantrum in a $500 tie. Let us remember that it was McConnell who refused to give Merrick Garland a hearing after President Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court, and it was McConnell’s strategy to have those same Republicans filibuster everything that moved in the Senate while Obama was in office. The idea that this new threat is anything other than more of the same is ridiculous.

Beyond that, the political price McConnell and the GOP could pay for such tactics would be enormous. This is not Mitch McConnell’s America, not after COVID and its attendant horrors. The whole idea of government as the enemy and of austerity as the answer has been chased out of the room like a rabid cur. This sea change in perception is perhaps temporary, perhaps here for a nice long stay, but it is here now, and will almost certainly remain so into the 2022 midterm election season.

Is it a gamble to call McConnell’s bluff? Of course, but then again, so is everything. President Biden has endorsed the idea of modifying the filibuster, and former filibuster defenders like Richard Durbin have come around to the same belief. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema still exist, and will not be easy to convince. Even if the change is made, it has limits on its overall effectiveness. Only the outright abolition of the filibuster will serve, and that is a mighty hill to climb even absent McConnell’s obstruction.

“The obstinate refusal of the Republican Party to be a good-faith partner in actually governing the country has made the demise of the filibuster the only real remedy that will allow anything to get done in the Senate,” writes Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce. “Let Mitch flex to his heart’s content. Let him fume and bluster. Then do what you want anyway. Get it while you can.”

Let Mitch stand in the doorway one last time before he slinks back to Kentucky. If he does, the nation will see this crisis deepen at the hands of a man who has been an impediment to progress since he first drew a level elected breath. The alternative — a 60-vote threshold left to the tender mercies of a radicalized Trumpian party — is barely worth discussing, and the cost to McConnell and the GOP could well be historically severe. Go on with your bad self, Mitch. We’ll be watching.