Conservatives call for "nuclear option": Why killing the filibuster still won't solve their DHS problem

Angry House conservatives want Mitch McConnell to ditch the filibuster... so that their plan can get vetoed?

Published February 13, 2015 3:30PM (EST)

Mitch McConnell               (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

If you took the "over" side of 30 days, congrats, you're the winner, winner, chicken dinner -- but just barely. That was about how long we guessed it would taken for conservatives in the new Congress to start calling for the wholesale elimination of the Senate filibuster in pursuit of a central policy goal that would get vetoed anyway. And here we are.

This was the inevitable next step in the House-Senate GOP blame-shifting spat over funding the Department of Homeland Security. It is the only answer that House conservatives have available to them; their stubbornness was eventually going to lead them to it. Only a few months ago, conservatives would have lauded the Senate filibuster as the Great Protector of Minority Rights, inserted directly by Jesus Christ himself into the Senate rules. (And yes, only a few months ago, Democrats would have blamed whatever calamities have befallen the Republic over the past six years on the Senate filibuster.) But then Republicans took over the Senate, so conservatives are ready to deep-six this malevolent parliamentary tool forged by Satan himself.

Let's recap how we got here!

1. The House passed a DHS appropriations bill that eliminated both of President Obama's programs to defer deportations for certain undocumented immigrants.

2. Senate Democrats filibustered that appropriations bill. They filibustered it right-good, they did, over and over again. The bill will come up for a fourth time, soon, and what Senate Democrats will do is filibuster it.

3. The Senate GOP called on the House to send over another bill because the one they'd sent over keeps getting filibustered.

4. The House GOP was like, whatever, not our problem, we already passed a bill, you've got to figure out a way to get it to the President.

5. The Senate GOP was like, there is no way! Filibuster! Doesn't get 60 votes! WHAT DON'T YOU GET ABOUT THIS.

Which brings us to the next step, the latest one, in which House conservatives float the one flaw in the Senate GOP's argument: There is indeed a way for the Senate leadership to get the DHS bill passed without sixty votes, if they have the balls/spine/testicles etc. to go for it.

A growing number of House GOP conservatives are pressuring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday to invoke the "nuclear option" and change the chamber's rules to pass a bill defunding President Obama's executive actions on immigration.

Reps. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said McConnell should change Senate rules, so the House-passed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill, which includes language to revoke Obama's immigration-related actions, can bypass a Democratic filibuster in the upper chamber.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) also endorsed the idea at a Thursday news conference. He said there’s a “way to change the rules to allow us to move forward” and “take away the ability to filibuster.”

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) was the first House Republican to advocate such a rules change Wednesday evening, arguing that now-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had established a precedent during his time in the majority.

It made for an awkward scene yesterday when Mulvaney offered this opinion at a joint House-Senate press conference. The Senate conservatives in attendance, including our man Ted Cruz, quickly shot down the idea of going "nuclear" on the legislative filibuster. Where is Ted Cruz's spine? Where are the man's balls!

Republicans should feel free to do away with the filibuster. Or at least reform it into a "talking filibuster," or something that makes filibustering more difficult than having one senator raise their hand. Mitch McConnell proved over the past six years that the minority can filibuster basically every piece of legislation on a partisan whim and pay no consequences for it, and now that's the norm. Most members would agree that this isn't tenable -- a majority has to have some ability to pass bills. This is going to blow up sooner or later. If the Republicans do it, it will be Democrats' own silly fault for not having done it when they had the majority.

But the House conservatives who are floating this should ask themselves: where would this get us right now, when we don't control the White House? The nuclear option would not be the answer to their DHS predicament. After the mushroom cloud cleared, everything would remain the same as it was.

That's because of the presidential veto. Mulvaney et al. are correct that there's nothing about the filibuster in the Constitution. It's a Senate rule that a Senate majority can strip from the rule book if and when it pleases. The presidential veto, on the other hand, is very much in the Constitution. And if the Senate eliminated the filibuster and conservatives got their DHS bill to the president's desk, this president would veto the dickens out of it. GOP leaders would have to come up with a new plan, just as they do right now.

Those House conservatives arguing that the McConnell should nuke the filibuster know that President Obama would veto it -- at first. They would argue, though, that if their bill was able to get through the Senate, it would give them more leverage in the event of a partial government shutdown. And it would! It would definitely give them more leverage and a better case to make in the court of public opinion.

But would it give them enough leverage? To win a shutdown fight? Hmm. The public is already inclined to blame the GOP for government shutdowns, since they hold up funding over things that the public doesn't think are worth it. They got blamed for the '90s shutdowns -- when they held both houses of Congress, as they do now -- when they demanded spending cuts on popular programs. They got blamed in '13 because, even though Obamacare polled poorly, people didn't think it was worth shutting down the government over its implementation. (It didn't kill off their chances in the 2014 election, obviously. But that doesn't mean it helped.) It's a good bet they'll get blamed in '15 too -- if people even know that there's a shutdown; this would only affect one federal department -- because people won't think that eliminating Obama's not-unpopular executive actions on deportation is worth the lapse in homeland security. In sum: people may be inclined to see the issue as a matter of Republican overreach because it will be a matter of Republican overreach.

As we like to say, though, whenever Republicans think this shutdown will be different, this shutdown will serve as a net positive for the party: go for it, see what happens.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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