How likely is filibuster reform if Republicans win in November? There’s been a bit of discussion this week about whether a unified Republican government would, as many liberals fear, rapidly move to eliminate or perhaps otherwise modify the need to have 60 votes in the Senate in order to get anything done. Kevin Drum believes the filibuster is “safe” because Republicans will realize that eliminating it will only make things easier for the Democrats in the future (see also Doug Mataconis’s take). Greg Sargent, however, quotes Norm Ornstein, who doesn’t think Republicans will be so sensible:
“Here is a once in a lifetime chance to implement real revolutionary change, and once we do it it will be years before it can be undone by a Democratic president,” Ornstein says, characterizing likely GOP thinking. “If you believe that Americans will love deregulation and budget cuts once they get them, you’re going to take the big long term hit to get the short term gain.”
I agree that it’s unlikely that Republicans would go for a full repeal anytime soon. Remember, there’s a numbers game here, too. Assuming no Democrats would go along, a Senate with 52 or 53 Republicans might have quite a bit of difficulty finding even a simple majority for such a radical move. On the other hand, a major GOP landslide giving them 57 or 58 senators might allow them to pass many of their proposals with 60 votes, making filibuster reform a relatively low priority.
What I’d want to emphasize is something that Ornstein got at, which is that it’s probably a mistake to think about it as an all or nothing proposition. Republicans during the Bush years didn’t eliminate the filibuster; they just modified reconciliation procedures to allow simple majorities to increase the deficit by passing large tax cuts. Some of this gets very obscure very quickly, but, for example, eliminating or modifying the “Byrd rule” in reconciliation might allow for repealing the Affordable Care Act through that procedure without touching the filibuster during regular Senate business.
I’d add that Republicans would probably return to a strategy for minimizing filibusters that they used during the Bush years but that Democrats, for the most part, have not used since 2009. Bush-era Republicans combined threats that they might eliminate the filibuster (at least for judicial nominations) with high-profile attempts to de-legitimize its use. Would that work? It did, a little, in 2003-2006.
After all, after decades of being theoretically possible under the rules, standard filibusters on all major items didn’t happen until January 1993, and a true 60-vote Senate was not in place until January 2009. We think of these things now as normal, but they’re really not over the sweep of Senate history. Perhaps it’s not impossible that some of the obstruction can be rolled back without actually changing the rules. At any rate, I think Republicans would probably try that first.