Unlike almost all of the rules the Senate operates under, which are crafted by senators themselves, the quorum requirement is written right into the Constitution: “a Majority … shall constitute a Quorum to do Business” says Article I, Section 5. Normally that’s not an issue because the Senate simply assumes a quorum is in place unless a member “suggests the absence of a quorum,” in which case a roll call is ordered and work halts until a majority of senators have appeared on the floor (or the quorum call, as it’s known, is terminated by unanimous consent).
McConnell unsubtly warned that the right to demand a quorum call is especially potent when the Senate is divided 50-50, because, if Republicans ever insist on one, every single Democratic senator would have to return to the chamber to produce a majority—the vice president doesn’t count. Senators performing the people’s work elsewhere—say, running committee hearings, or meeting with constituents—would have to abandon what they’re doing to return to the floor. And if someone’s sick or out of town, that could make achieving a quorum impossible.
With this scenario in mind, McConnell glowered, “A scorched-earth Senate would hardly be able to function. It wouldn’t be a progressive’s dream. It would be a nightmare. I guarantee it.”
He’s right, though: It would be a nightmare—for him.
When a quorum is called, Senate rules don’t allow recalcitrant members to just sit in their offices playing Fortnite. They have to head to the chamber floor, and if they don’t, the consequences are severe. That helps explain why no one has tried to gum up the Senate’s operations by withholding a quorum since February of 1988, when Republicans staged a walk-out over a vote on a campaign finance measure after Democrats brought in cots in preparation for an all-night debate.
Majority Leader Robert Byrd demanded the Republicans return, and on a 45-3 vote, Democrats directed Capitol Police to apprehend the absentee senators, wherever they might be. The Los Angeles Times’ David Lauter recounted what happened next in vivid detail:
Armed with arrest warrants for all 46 Republicans, the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms, Henry Giugni, and his men began to search the corridors of the Capitol and the Senate office buildings. After checking several empty offices, they spotted Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.) but he fled down a hallway and escaped arrest. Then a cleaning woman tipped them that [Oregon Sen. Bob] Packwood was in his office, and Giugni—a burly former Hawaii vice officer—opened the door with a passkey.
Packwood tried to shove the door closed, but Giugni and two of his assistants pushed it open. The senator, who hurt his left arm in an accident two weeks ago and has been wearing a cast since then, tried to use his left hand to keep the door shut, bruising his knuckles in the process.
The humiliation for Packwood (who would later resign under threat of expulsion over allegations of sexual misconduct) did not end there: Lauter reported that he “was carried feet-first into the Senate chamber by three plainclothes officers.”
Is that the fate McConnell intends for his caucus, or for himself? We know he can ill afford bruised hands, though he probably doesn’t mind the bruised ego. But forcing this kind of spectacle would only highlight Republican obstructionism in the worst possible way, and it would only further radicalize Democrats in favor of curtailing the very thing McConnell is most desperate to protect: the filibuster. That would be McConnell’s true nightmare, and one of his own doing.