McConnell's filibuster threats are already backfiring: Biden signals support for major Senate reform

Mitch McConnell has finally managed to get the Democrats to understand they have nothing to lose

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 17, 2021 9:45AM (EDT)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters following the weekly Republican Senate conference meeting in the Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol December 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Senate GOP leaders were asked about the chances of Congress passing another coronavirus relief bill along with must-pass government funding legislation. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters following the weekly Republican Senate conference meeting in the Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol December 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Senate GOP leaders were asked about the chances of Congress passing another coronavirus relief bill along with must-pass government funding legislation. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

During the Trump years, there was an excessive amount of hand-wringing over the fact that he and his administration were exploding all the "norms" that had previously held our government institutions together. His insulting behavior and crude lack of decorum woke up many a pundit to the idea that much of our system was dependent upon a good faith adherence to the spirit of democracy as much as any formal rules, regulations and laws. He came to Washington without any serious understanding of how government worked and he didn't care when it was pointed out to him. Many were left shocked at how feeble our institutions had turned out to be in the face of someone who had no respect for them.

But let's not kid ourselves. Those norms had always only been as strong as the people who were charged with upholding them and those agreements were unraveling long before Trump entered politics. So we should have seen it coming.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had been making a mockery of Senate norms for years as Majority Leader and he had made it quite clear those old-fashioned notions were no longer operative. There was a time when elected officials would express their support for a new president of the opposite party, wishing them success for the good of the country. McConnell broke that norm during Barack Obama's first term when he openly admitted that he considered it his top priority to deny Obama a second term. He didn't believe it was in his interest to accommodate or negotiate in good faith and instead began a campaign of total obstruction so that the president and his administration would fail and the Republicans would take back the White House.

While this sort of scorched-earth tactic wasn't unprecedented, it was unusual for a national political leader to flaunt his intentions so boldly. There used to be a penalty for being so openly ungracious but McConnell found that it didn't hurt him so he kept right on going, purposefully paralyzing the Obama administration, making it obvious that democratic norms were no longer functional. And left unable to confirm any members of the judiciary under McConnell's obstructive tactics, the Democrats had to eliminate the filibuster norm for everything but nominees to the Supreme Court. After he won the majority, McConnell brazenly blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland, Obama's choice for the high court, for months only to scrap the filibuster for the Supreme Court as well once Donald Trump won the White House and nominated a Republican to the seat. McConnell's excuse, which he made up out of whole cloth, was that in an election year the seat should stay empty because it should be up to the people to decide which president should choose the new justice.

It was an unprecedented abuse of Senate norms, signaling that McConnell had decided that anything goes. He used every trick in the book to keep Democrats from bringing any bills to the floor. He ignored all legislation that came from the House. And he spent virtually every minute confirming massive numbers of unqualified conservative judges to lifetime appointments on the federal bench. And when he was asked what he would do if a seat on the high court became vacant during the upcoming presidential election in 2020, he took a long drink of water and smugly said, "Oh, we'd fill it."

And they did. Six weeks before the election they rammed through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in total contravention of everything McConnell had previously said and without even the slightest hint of embarrassment. And now, after all that, he has the nerve to stand on the floor of the Senate and threaten the Democrats with fire and fury if they decide to change the rules in order to pass their agenda over unified GOP obstruction. Shamelessness doesn't even begin to describe it.

Needless to say, the Democrats are no longer under any illusion that McConnell and the Republicans operate in good faith, as they have demonstrated over and over again that they don't. They pretend to negotiate in order to delay and then when they get Democrats to compromise they refuse to vote for the bill anyway. It's no longer worth it for Democrats to waste time playing their game. So, they are now seriously discussing reforming the filibuster in order to pass some of their important priorities. If they don't, the entire legislative agenda is dead in the water and they know it.

Even the recalcitrant centrists Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema have signaled that they are open to changing the rules to require a "talking filibuster" which would have several elements that make it very difficult for the minority to efficiently obstruct. (The Intercept's Ryan Grim explains the various possible rule changes in his newsletter this week.) In an important shift, President Biden said on Tuesday that he too is open to the idea:

Mitch McConnell is not pleased.

On Tuesday, he angrily declared that if the Democrats were to change the rules as he routinely does when he is in charge, the Republicans would respond by defunding Planned Parenthood and loosening gun restrictions as soon as they get the majority, which he will do in any case if it pleases him. 

Working himself up into a froth, McConnell warned that if the Democrats were to do this, there would be a "100-car pileup" and "nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like." He threatened the Democrats with delaying tactics saying, "I want our colleagues to imagine a world where every single task, every one of them, requires a physical quorum, which, by the way, the Vice President does not count in determining a quorum."

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Il, remained unfazed by the threat, however, pointing out that McConnell "has already done that. He's proven he can do it and they'll do it again, I assume."

McConnell's extreme politicization of Senate norms, grinding the Obama administration to a halt and then confirming hundreds of extremist judges, including three onto the Supreme Court, demonstrated that he has absolutely no respect for democratic norms. He didn't try to hide it. And that was his big mistake. By being so smug and so flamboyant in wielding his power (remember "we'll fill it"?) he finally managed to get the Democrats to understand that they have nothing to lose by going around him to enact their agenda and letting the people decide if they like the results. If it works out they, will be re-elected. If not, they did their best. That's democracy, after all, the most important norm of all.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Democrats Filibuster Joe Biden Joe Manchin Mitch Mcconnell Senate Sinema