The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wants the Senate to get rid of the filibuster. Good luck with that.

President Trump has been pushing Senate Republicans to go "nuclear" to push through his nominees and legislation. But what is the so-called "nuclear option"? (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Whenever President Trump is frustrated with Congress, he often falls back on one solution: Get rid of the filibuster in the Senate. He did it again this week, this time because of immigration.

On the surface, it's easy to see why Trump thinks getting rid of the filibuster would solve his legislative problems. But in the long run, such a drastic change to Senate rules could end up hurting him and his party. And that's one reason the Senate almost certainly won't get rid of the filibuster anytime soon.

“No amount of tweeting by the president is going to convince a majority of the Senate today that they would collectively and individually be better off in a majority rule Senate,” said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert with George Washington University.

First, a little bit about how the filibuster works: Any one senator can hold up legislation by threatening to block it with a filibuster. A filibuster threat requires a bill to earn 60 out of 100 votes to eventually pass the Senate instead of just a simple majority.

As Congress gets more partisan, the filibuster has turned into a powerful tool for the minority to block bills they oppose. Rarely these days does a major policy change automatically have 60 votes. There are currently 51 Republicans and 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats — though that ratio is often 50/49 as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) undergoes treatment for brain cancer.

Alan Frumin, who served as Senate parliamentarian until 2012, says the Senate needs a “critical mass of responsible adults” to function effectively. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

So, from Trump's perspective: You get rid of the filibuster, you get rid of the need for 60 votes, and it becomes much easier for Republicans to pass his agenda with just 50 or 51 votes. Sounds simple enough.

Except, that will almost certainly backfire on him, warn current and former Senate aides and congressional procedural experts. Here's why:

Trump likes to blame Democrats for holding up his agenda. But if he took away Democrats' ability to block his agenda, he would lose his favorite scapegoat.

The president also risks baring just how little support there is for the more controversial parts of his agenda within his own party. His immigration plan got 39 votes in February. Last summer, when Republicans used a procedural tool to try to repeal Obamacare with just Republican votes, they fell short by one vote. Very few Republicans in Congress are as eager as Trump to spend $25 billion on a brick-and-mortar wall along the border, if that ever came up for a vote.

Trump's reaction to all that has disincentivized Republicans to put themselves on the line for his agenda. Trump has proved just as willing to bash Republicans as Democrats when he thinks they're to blame.

Why on earth, said one Senate Republican aide requesting anonymity to speak candidly, would they get rid of the filibuster when it risks putting them on the receiving end of Trump's ire?

“He's not going to get what he wants, and he'll blame Republicans,” the aide said.

Another reason Trump's call to getting rid of the filibuster seems shortsighted to those in the Senate: Eventually, perhaps while Trump is president, Republicans will be wishing they had the filibuster.

Republicans have held control of the Senate since 2014, but they won't hold it forever. It's possible that Democrats will take control of the Senate as soon as this November.

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And as soon as Republicans are in the minority, they're going to want the ability to block Democratic legislation.

The man Trump would need to sign off on blowing up the filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), understands its value better than most. McConnell has spent twice as long leading his party in the minority than the majority, and he remembers all too well how helpful the filibuster was in those years.

His party was so skilled at filibustering President Barack Obama's judicial and political nominations that Democrats eventually ended the minority party's ability to filibuster most of those nominations. (Under McConnell, Republicans got rid of the ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominees, too, which put Justice Neil M. Gorsuch on the court.)

So, which party is responsible for the death of the filibuster? Let's debate.

But even if McConnell got struck by lightning or something and suddenly became convinced that changing this historic Senate rule was a great idea, he probably wouldn't be able to. He would need to put it to a vote, and Senate Republicans simply don't have the votes to end the filibuster. A year ago, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) sent a bipartisan letter to McConnell with a total of 61 senators urging him to preserve the filibuster.

“We are mindful of the unique role the Senate plays in the legislative process,” the letter read, “and we are steadfastly committed to ensuring that this great American institution continues to serve as the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

And that's the final reason the filibuster is probably here to stay. It's what makes the Senate the Senate. The House of Representatives is a place where what the majority wants, the majority gets. The Founding Fathers set the Senate up to be much more deliberative and bipartisan.

To give up the filibuster would be for senators to give up that power to be a check on both the partisan House and the White House.

“I think there is a recognition inside the body that the filibuster is something that provides some degree of continuity in policy,” said Guy Cecil, head of Democratic super PAC Priorities USA and former top Senate aide, “so that you're not just moving from ultraright to ultraleft.”