Senate Republicans who once backed killing the filibuster now want to save it

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The Senate GOP is doing everything possible to block rule changes that would allow Democrats to protect voting rights.

Senate Republicans are furious that the Democratic majority is considering possible changes to the filibuster rules that allow a minority to block legislation.

But just a few years ago, when Republicans held a majority and the White House, many of them wanted to do the same thing to get their own priorities passed.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell objected to Democratic efforts to pass voting rights legislation by majority vote. Current Senate rules require a three-fifths supermajority, or 60 votes, to end debate on nearly all legislation, allowing just 41% of the senators to thwart the will of the majority — and voters.

"It appears as if the majority leader is hellbent to try to break the Senate," the Kentucky Republican complained. "His argument is that somehow state legislatures across the country are busily at work trying to make it more difficult for people to vote. Of course, that's not happening anywhere in America."

In 2021, 19 state legislatures passed laws making it more difficult for people to vote.

McConnell was referring to comments by Democrat Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, who warned on Monday that if the Republicans do not "change course" and end their filibuster of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, he would trigger a vote on "changes to the Senate rules" and try to pass it with just 51 votes.

Schumer has said he plans to bring up the bill, which would enhance federal voting rights protections and overrule state suppression laws, on or before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 17.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and several leading members of the GOP minority have pointed out in recent days that Schumer made comments 17 years ago in support of the filibuster rule.

But while it is true that Schumer and other Democrats have changed their views in the face of McConnell's historically frequent obstruction, it is also true that many Republicans pushed for majority rule in the Senate in recent years and against the filibuster.

In 2015, Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran objected to a Democratic filibuster of a resolution disapproving of the Obama administration's Iran nuclear agreement. "This becomes the moment, in my view, in which you can look at what has transpired on the debate on Iran, and reach the conclusion that the 60-vote rule is damaging to the future of our country," he told colleagues.

"It's damaging to the ability of the Senate to work the will of the American people and to make decisions that advance a cause different than one's political party and political philosophy," he added.

Over the first two years of Donald Trump's single presidential term, Republicans held a majority in the House and Senate. As his legislative agenda sputtered, Trump repeatedly demanded that the 60-vote threshold be scrapped.

"If Republican Senate doesn't get rid of the Filibuster Rule & go to a simple majority, which the Dems would do, they are just wasting time!" he tweeted in August 2017.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told a tea party group the following month that he changed his mind "over the last five years" and now wanted to eliminate the Democratic minority's power to filibuster. "Long and short out of it, I would end the 60-vote filibuster right now."

At a June 2018 White House meeting, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) reportedly backed Trump's call to scrap the rule, saying, "I support going to a simple majority."

In December 2018, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) penned an op-ed in a Montana newspaper titled "Filibuster obstructs Senate's work," arguing that there is no constitutional basis for the filibuster and that legislation should be subject to "an up or down vote" and go to the president's desk if a majority backs it.

"The Senate can change its practice and restore majority rule just as the framers of the Constitution designed it. It is time to return our trust to their wisdom," Daines urged.

North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd, who is currently seeking the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat in his state, insisted last June that the filibuster must be preserved to stop "the Left's radical wish list." But in March 2018, he said the 60-vote threshold was "really hurting America" and that "we could get a lot more done" with a 51-vote requirement.

While Republicans now pretend the right to filibuster is sacrosanct and should not be changed by a simple majority vote, just five years ago they did just that — stripping the Democratic minority of its power to filibuster Supreme Court nominees and confirming Justice Neil Gorsuch by a simple majority vote.

Just last month, Republican Sens. Mike Lee (UT) and Roger Marshall (KS) insisted that their proposal to block President Joe Biden's COVID-19 safety rules be subject only to a 51-vote requirement. "A simple up-or-down, yes or no, a simple-majority vote," Lee said. "That's all I'm asking."

Eli Zupnick, a spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, a coalition of groups pushing to stop progressive legislation from being derailed by Republican filibusters, told the American Independent Foundation he thinks McConnell and his caucus are being hypocritical and dishonest.

"Senate Republicans were happy to change the rules to jam a Supreme Court nominee through and many wanted to go even further, so it's absurd to hear Sen. McConnell and others now claim that Senate rules are sacrosanct," he observed.

"Anyone who has watched Sen. McConnell twist and change Senate rules over the years should understand that he would eliminate the legislative filibuster the moment that was in his interest and that protecting the filibuster now does nothing to ensure it will still be there when Republicans take back control," Zupnick added.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.