Why Republicans won’t call the Hagel filibuster a filibuster

February 13, 2013

Update: Republicans have successfully filibustered Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, with 59 senators supporting an end to debate. But they still don't want to call it a filibuster. 

“This is not a filibuster,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced on the floor immediately after the vote. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) concurred, saying Republicans weren't trying to block the vote, just asking for more time. "If this is not a filibuster, I'd like to see what a filibuster is," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) retorted. On Wednesday, we explained why Republicans don't consider their block of Hagel's nomination a filibuster.

Republicans don't want to filibuster Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next Secretary of Defense. They just want to require a 60-vote threshold to end debate on his confirmation on the floor of the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has filed for cloture, saying it's a "shame" that he had to do so.

"We're going to require a 60-vote threshold," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told Foreign Policy. But, he added, "It's not a filibuster. I don't want to use that word." Likewise, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he now might vote against cloture, which cuts off debate. But he still thinks “a filibuster is a bad precedent” to set for a Cabinet nominee. No Cabinet nominee has been defeated by filibuster; the vast majority receive only an up-or-down vote.

Um, what?


Republican Chuck Hagel, a former two-term senator from Nebraska and President Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at George Washington University, explains what looks to be a distinction without a difference.

"Technically, there's no hard or fast definition of what constitutes a filibuster," said Binder. "There's just extended debate, which happens all the time. To end debate, you might need a vote on cloture, which requires 60 votes. But, she says, requiring sixty votes to cut off debate is "in effect requiring the majority to overcome a filibuster-- or at least the threat of a filibuster."

For what it's worth, the Congressional Research Service calls filibusters "a matter of intent; any course of action by opponents of a matter may be a filibuster if it is undertaken with the purpose of blocking or delaying a vote."

What Republicans can argue then is that if they don't intend to rally the 41 votes required to prevent a cloture vote, than they aren't really threatening a filibuster. They are just expressing their disapproval, through a cloture vote. (Now that the cloture vote has failed, Republicans say they are just asking for more time -- they still don't intend to block the nomination, and intent is everything.) Got it?

Republicans note that two Cabinet nominations made by President George W. Bush -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Environmental Protection Agency head Stephen Johnson -- had to meet a sixty-vote threshold. (Kempthorne's cloture vote was 85 to 8, Johnson's 61 to 37.)

So were those cloture votes or filibusters? "The two terms are used interchangeably depending on what side of the debate you're on,"  said one GOP aide. At least some Republicans have decided that that 60 votes is now the standard: "There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told the Cable.

Dr. Gregory Koger, author of "Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate," defines the filibuster as "legislative behavior (or the threat of such behavior) intended to delay a collective action for strategic gain."

By that standard, Koger says, what Republicans are doing is filibustering, "and in practice voting against cloture means that a senator wishes for a filibuster to continue."

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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Sean Sullivan | February 13, 2013