Through a series of onerous procedural mechanisms, McConnell threatened to grind the chamber—and therefore U.S. democracy—to a halt. McConnell said he would require a quorum for basically everything, require every bill to be read from the floor in full, and gum up the works even for nominees who have broad bipartisan support.
The quorum threat is intriguing in this 50-50 split Senate because although Republicans could conceivably deprive Democrats of achieving the 51 senators necessary to reach quorum (a threshold Vice President Kamala Harris cannot help break), Republicans could just as conceivably be arrested and forcibly hauled into the Senate chamber for willfully denying quorum, as Daily Kos political director David Nir helpfully explained.
But perhaps more broadly, McConnell’s comments reveal just how fearful he is that Democrats might limit the GOP minority’s blockade on nearly everything that can’t be passed through reconciliation. They come in the aftermath of the Democrats’ No. 2, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, describing the filibuster as becoming “the death grip of democracy” and a “weapon of mass obstruction.”
“Senators can literally phone in a filibuster,” Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday from the Senate floor. “Defenders of the filibuster will tell you that it’s essential for American democracy. The opposite is true. Today’s filibuster undermines democracy.”
Republicans have also taken to threatening Democrats with what they would do if they retook the Senate majority.
“I would remind my dear friend Angus [King] that the Democrats could be in the minority two years from now,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, supposed moderate, “and they will wish that they had not done away with the filibuster if that happens, that I can assure you.”
McConnell went so far as to lay out the gleeful agenda Republicans would ram through if they recapture the majority: passing nationwide right-to-work laws, defunding Planned Parenthood, approving “sweeping” abortion restrictions, and overseeing a “massive hardening” of the southern border.
Durbin’s response to the scorched-earth threat? We’ve seen it all before. “He has already done that. He’s proven he can do it, and he will do it again.”
It’s important to remember a few things about the filibuster and the potential upsides/downsides of reforming it or removing it altogether. First, if Republicans achieve unilateral control of the government again any time in the next decade, the nation is completely helpless to what this group of pro-sedition, anti-democracy marauders would do no matter what. The filibuster will be the least of our worries as progressives who believe in a democratic government.
Second, if Democrats are able to maintain control of either the White House or House or both, then the damage a GOP Senate majority could do is almost exactly what they are planning on doing in the minority anyway—jam a Biden/Democratic agenda.
Third, Republicans can’t legislate worth a damn because their party has become such an unruly beast of self-interested actors. The next GOP Senate majority, whenever it comes, will inevitably include some of the same GOP bomb-throwers who have made the House Republican caucus so ungovernable over the past decade. Republicans will always find ways to damage American democracy since that now seems to be their entire agenda as a party but, with the exception of their 2017 tax giveaway to the wealthy, they have not proven particularly adept over the last decade at passing legislation that stands a chance of being passed into law—even when they control both the upper and lower chambers along with the White House.
Finally, Republicans as a party are predisposed to blocking forward progress whereas Democrats are predisposed to pushing new ideas and reforms forward. Republicans are the party of obstruction, both in theory and in practice. As such, the filibuster helps them much more when they are in the minority that it does Democrats, and it restrains Democrats much more when they are in the majority than it does Republicans.
As former Harry Reid aide Adam Jentleson pointed out, Democrats may as well put their eggs in the basket of trying to make democracy work while they have the chance.
Following McConnell’s “scorched-earth” threat, Jentleson, author of the filibuster-themed book Kill Switch, tweeted, “Trading this for the ability to actually pass bills like voting rights seems like an easy call. If McConnell’s tactics become truly onerous, Dems can always pass further reforms to end obstruction. McConnell’s goal is to make government fail, Dems’ goal should be to make it work.”