McConnell's "scorched earth" threat over filibuster shows he's "getting scared," critics say

"Mitch McConnell is terrified of the filibuster being abolished"

Published March 17, 2021 6:37PM (EDT)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty Images)

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Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's threat Tuesday to unleash never-before-seen "chaos" on the Senate if Democrats take aim at the legislative filibuster was viewed by progressives as a strong signal that the Kentucky Republican is beginning to get nervous about losing his most powerful tool of obstruction as support for weakening—or outright abolishing—the archaic rule continues to mount.

Just hours after Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) became the highest-ranking Senate Democrat to speak out in support of filibuster reform, McConnell—the upper chamber's chief obstructionist—took to the floor to vow "a completely scorched-earth Senate" if the majority party moves to eliminate the 60-vote threshold, which effectively gives the minority veto power over most legislation in a narrowly divided chamber.

On top of promising that Republicans would "use every other rule" to obstruct the Democratic agenda should the majority vote to nuke the filibuster, McConnell said the GOP would take the first opportunity they get to "erase" every Democratic achievement and ram through longstanding right-wing policy objectives, such as "nationwide right-to-work" and "defunding Planned Parenthood."

Far from being a reason for Democratic leaders to shy away from mounting support within their caucus for filibuster reform or abolition, progressives said McConnell's threat-laced speech shows that the party is moving in the right direction and should step on the gas.

"Mitch McConnell is terrified of the filibuster being abolished," tweeted consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen. "Is there any better sign that we should do it?"

Eli Zupnick of Fix Our Senate said in a statement Tuesday that "McConnell is clearly getting desperate as momentum grows to eliminate the filibuster as a weapon he can use to maintain power from the minority and prevent Democrats from delivering on their promises."

"McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees when he was in power and has already made it clear that he and his caucus plan to use every tool at their disposal to delay and obstruct the majority's popular agenda," Zupnick added, "so Senate Democrats should ignore these latest hypocritical threats and continue their work delivering results in the face of unanimous Republican opposition."

Sawyer Hackett, a senior adviser to Julián Castro, tweeted that McConnell's speech is "zero cause for flinching."

"McConnell has used every ounce of his power to enact his agenda without Dem input," Hackett wrote. "Without the filibuster, the GOP would have to actually campaign on their record and the public would see the benefit of Dems in majority."

McConnell's remarks came days after the House and Senate passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that Democrats had to push through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process due to unanimous Republican opposition. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) offered a taste of the kind of obstruction McConnell might have in mind for the near future when he forced the Senate clerk to read aloud all 628 pages of the bill, which took nearly 11 hours.

Given the rules constraining the reconciliation process, progressives have argued that the only way Senate Democrats will have any hope of passing a much-needed expansion of voting rightsimmigration and labor law reform, climate legislation, and more is if they eliminate or significantly reform the legislative filibuster—moves that would require the support of all 50 Democratic senators plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.

In recent weeks, several Senate Democrats previously skeptical of filibuster reform have come out in favor of reform or complete abolition, pointing to persistent Republican obstruction that turned the Senate into a legislative graveyard.

After calling the filibuster a "weapon of mass obstruction" on the Senate floor Monday, Durbin told HuffPost that it was McConnell's conduct in recent years that changed his opinion on the modern filibuster, which he used to support.

"Senator McConnell taught me that I was wrong," said Durbin. "He managed to use and abuse the filibuster so many times and stopped the Senate in its track."

Durbin suggested reviving the talking filibuster, which would require senators who wish to block a bill to speak continuously on the Senate floor—a dramatic change from the status quo of allowing the minority party to obstruct legislation via email.

Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the Senate's most conservative Democrat, has said he would be open to a return to the talking filibuster, telling Fox News earlier this month that "maybe it has to be more painful, maybe you have to stand there."

With momentum clearly on the side of significantly weakening the filibuster, Adam Jentleson of the Battle Born Collective argued Senate Democrats should plow ahead with a major change to the archaic rule without fearing the retaliation McConnell has promised.

"Trading this for the ability to actually pass bills like voting rights seems like an easy call," Jentleson, who previously served as a staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said of McConnell's "scorched Earth" threat.

"If McConnell's tactics become truly onerous," Jentleson added, "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."

By Jake Johnson

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Filibuster Mitch Mcconnell Scorched Earth