Senate Democrats this week settled into their new role as a chamber minority — filibustering three attempts in three days by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to call up a House-passed bill that would both fund homeland security programs and rescind the president’s 2012 and 2014 executive actions on immigration. Senate Democrats weren’t the only ones questioning McConnell’s strategy of repeated roll call votes. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) quipped to the New York Times earlier this week, “Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Voting for the same bill over and over again?”
What is McConnell thinking? The majority leader reportedly holds his cards close to his vest. But my hunch is that there’s more method to his madness than it would appear, even as it exposes the GOP to charges that it can’t govern.
McConnell’s repeated votes tactic might be designed to send a signal to House and Senate GOP conservatives that Democrats are resolute in their opposition to the immigration riders. Repeated votes might be intended to demonstrate to Republicans that coupling Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding and immigration riders is a dead-end strategy, given that Democrats have rallied around their party’s position. As an opening move toward moderating the GOP’s position, repeated votes might simply be a signal to conservatives to move on to the as-yet-undefined “Plan B.”
My hunch is that the “send the message” strategy underestimates McConnell’s incentives as Senate leader. Rather than using votes to encourage conservatives to back down from the House-passed bill, McConnell might simply be playing a bicameral partisan blame game: Make clear to Speaker John A. Boehner that the House GOP has to back down first — given Senate rules that undermine the power of Senate majorities. Why would McConnell try to force the House to go first? Such a move would allow McConnell to (try to) avoid blame for buckling to Democrats, allowing him to claim to conservatives in his conference that he fought the good fight and had no choice but to adopt the House’s concessions. Of course, Boehner has already signaled publicly that he’s not ready to take the bait: “He’s got a tough job over there,” Boehner said this week. “I’ve got a tough job over here. God bless him and good luck.”
Alternatively, McConnell’s strategy might just be delay, hoping that repeated votes give the GOP a chance to turn public opinion to its side. As Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) noted this week, “I’m hoping public opinion starts to recognize that it’s not Republicans who are objecting or obstructing.” If that’s the case, it’s just a different blame game. Rather than blame the speaker and the House, McConnell seeks to blame Democrats, encouraging them to move closer to the House conservatives’ position.
It would not be complete insanity to use repeated cloture votes on motions to proceed to a bill to secure minority party concessions. Although three or more cloture votes on such motions are not common, we do have ample precedents from the Senate’s recent past that suggest the tactic does sometimes help to break down minority resistance. Then-Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1996 filed eight cloture motions on a motion to proceed to a resolution that would indefinitely extend the chamber’s Whitewater investigation. One month of cloture votes later, Democrats conceded to a two-month extension.
Of course, majorities also sometimes find themselves compelled to compromise after repeated cloture votes to get a bill on the Senate floor. Senate Democrats conceded a major plank of the “motor voter” bill (with McConnell leading the filibustering Republicans in 1993 against his fellow Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford) to secure votes for cloture. Senate Democrats in 2010 also amended the bill that would become Dodd-Frank to secure GOP votes for cloture after repeated cloture votes on motions to proceed to the bill. And those concessions came even as Republicans weathered headlines suggesting overwhelming public support for financial regulatory reform.
The bottom line is that both parties today are playing a blame game — seeking to win the messaging battle over the GOP’s effort to rescind the president’s immigration orders. Neither party at this point has an incentive to fold. And of course Democrats in October 2013 believed that Republicans paid a reputational price for shutting down the government over defunding Obamacare. (Although some House conservatives claim that shutting down the government produced a larger House GOP in the 2014 elections, the more immediate outcome was that the GOP brand name plummeted and Democrats secured a clean spending bill and raised the debt limit.)
With a veto promised from the White House, Democrats today have every incentive to wait out McConnell’s voting strategy until the GOP offers a clean spending bill. In the meantime, the rest of us can sit back and watch a bicameral GOP figure out how to resolve an impasse of its own making and to move on to other governing challenges.