Democrats used to love the filibuster

July 16, 2013

The Senate’s pitched battle over filibuster rules marks a deep irony in American politics: Democratic leaders are threatening to eliminate a tactic that their own partisans once supported by more than 3 to 1.

In 2005, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found 64 percent of Democrats preferring to “keep” the filibuster rule for judicial appointments, while only 20 percent wanted to “eliminate” it. Republicans took the opposite view – wanting to end the filibuster – by a similar margin. The survey question described the main arguments of political leaders at the time: Republicans want to eliminate the filibuster saying it’s unfair for a minority to block a full Senate vote while Democrats want to retain it so the minority can block judges it strongly opposes.

Of course, things have changed since then: A Democrat now sits in the White House and Democrats also have majority control of the Senate. Since the power switch, polling on filibuster tactics shows partisans have changed their minds. A 2010 Quinnipiac poll found 60 percent of Democrats saying it is “not justified” for senators to use a filibuster to prevent Supreme Court nominations from coming to a vote; 66 percent of Republicans said it wasjustified.”

And, to be clear, Reid is seeking to differentiate between changing the filibuster rules for agency and Cabinet nominees and changing them for judicial nominees, which he has sworn he will never do.

While the filibuster might be consuming the Washington political community, most Americans are far from experts on it. In 2010, just 26 percent of them knew that 60 votes are required to overcome a Senate filibuster, according to a Pew Research Center poll.  It’s also hard for Americans to have consistent opinions on Senate debate rules with only a passing knowledge of the facts.

Another interpretation of the flip-flopping on filibusters is that Americans care more about their team winning than how they played the game. This appears to be true on Capitol Hill as well, where Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell have themselves taken precisely opposite positions in the past. Partisan voters are not immune to such turnabouts when trusted party leaders are leading the way.

Scott Clement is a survey research analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. 

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Sean Sullivan · July 16, 2013