Why the Filibuster Doesn’t Matter (so much)

by Bruce Webb

A great deal of ink and untold pixels have been expended ‘explaining’ why a real majority in the Senate requires enough votes to shut down a filibuster, i.e. sixty. And in that vein people are eagerly following the races in Alaska, Georgia and WisconsinMinnesota hoping all three will break the Democrats way and fretting that the Dems can’t afford to boot Lieberman if by some chance lightning does strike. Well I suggest this ignores the actual way filibusters actually played out in the 110th Congress. Rather than being a constitutional issue or even strictly a political issue instead the filibuster was used primarily for its public relations power in allowing Republicans to present themselves as stewards of civility and compromise while pinning Democrats as political grand standers. Well that dog won’t hunt anymore. But to see why we have to look at the actual mechanics of the filibuster in the last Congress.

It all depended on moving the goalposts from 51 votes to 67 (sic). Step one: get President Bush to threaten a veto. It didn’t really matter if this threat was in real terms serious, it just had to be out there. What it did is allow Republican Senators to make the claim that any attempt by the Democrats to move legislation that did not have enough votes to overturn the veto was just a time-wasting PR move. If Republicans did relent and allow the legislation through the only result would be a veto and the return of that bill to the Senate for some compromise. So why bother? Instead get the Dems to admit that they didn’t have even 60 immediate votes to close debate and so force them to compromise anyway. Under this framing any Republican filibuster was simply a time saving move in the ultimate interest of getting signable legislation accomplished. And more to the point any attempt by Democrats to put Republicans on the spot by forcing them to actually engage in prolonged debate simply illustrated how non-serious the Democrats were in actually governing.

But this strategy all falls to pieces if you don’t have the backup of a Presidential veto. If instead you have a bill with strong support of the House, a solid majority of the Senate and expressed willingness by a Democratic President to sign it there is no way to spin a filibuster as some time-saving way of getting to an inevitable compromise. Instead it is exposed for what it really was all along-a naked attempt by the minority to shut down progress supported by the majority. Institutionally there is no difference, but it is night and day on the public relations front. In particular it strips all cover from remaining Republican moderates. In the last Congress they could make a plausible CYA explanation that they were just acknowledging the reality of the Presidential veto, that it wasn’t the fortieth vote to sustain the filibuster that mattered but instead the thirty-fourth vote that would uphold the (theoretical) veto. In this Congress that loincloth just got stripped away.

From a Democratic perspective it would be useful to achieve a filibuster-proof sixty vote majority, and particularly when it comes to such vital matters as new Supreme Court justices. It might even be reason enough to tolerate a mild level of blackmail by Lieberman to keep him nominally in the caucus. But the oft expressed notion that the Republicans can simply filibuster anything and everything in the way they did in the last Congress simply does not survive exposure to the actual political and public relations process as it will play out with a Democratic President backing up a Democratic Senate. Because in the end that goal line has been moved back from 67 to 51 and the filibuster has been reduced to what in football terms is known as the Prevent Defense. And as every good football fan knows the only thing the Prevent Defense prevents is victory, and tends to piss off the fans all at the same time.

So root, root, root that Stevens, Coleman and most especially the thoroughly despicable Chambliss get kicked to the curb over the next few weeks. Just don’t spend time worrying that the entire Obama/Democratic agenda depends on reaching 60 votes in the Senate. The dynamics have changed and Republicans no longer have the PR cover they did when Bush’s veto pen floated in the background.