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Why the McConnell filibuster flub matters

Filibusters, at the very least, could once be counted upon as entertainment. Think Jimmy Stewart's grand speech in Mr.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., last week. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., last week.

Filibusters, at the very least, could once be counted upon as entertainment. Think Jimmy Stewart's grand speech in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as many often do when the word is uttered. In its intended form, it is a theatrical, physical exercise, a demonstration not only of the passions held by the U.S. senator delivering it in a full voice, but also his or her skills at making a persuasive argument. It is debate club, in excelsis.

But those speeches are no longer required.

In the president's first term, it was used by Republicans almost singularly as a weapon pointed at the temple of the presidential legislative agenda. And as we've learned from the Republican abuse of the filibuster in recent years, it is much easier to kill legislation when you don't even have to say a word to block it from a vote. Where's the fun in that?

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell invented a new way to make filibusters entertaining again. He filibustered himself.

Here's what happened: McConnell approached Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday morning with a request to vote on a bill which would allow President Obama to raise the debt ceiling. That's the legislative invention that Congress sets for government borrowing to pay our past bills. It's the very thing, as you may recall, Republicans in the House held hostage for so long last year that our country's AAA credit rating was downgraded for the first time ever.

McConnell was asking for the vote because it is widely believed that in the wake of their Election Day whoopin', the prospect of another tiring debt-ceiling tussle is the Republicans' only leverage in the fight they're having now over the "fiscal cliff." The president on Wednesday made it clear that he doesn't want to play that game again, but we keep hearing it entertained as a possibility because as Alec MacGillis noted in The New Republic yesterday, some media outlets are overestimating the hand Republicans have to play here.

Perhaps McConnell believed in this GOP upperhand as well given his bold call  for a vote. The most obvious interpretation--taking into account McConnell's wont for presidential sabotage--is that he believed that not even Democrats would support raising the debt ceiling, the vote he requested would never come up. The president would be left alone on this, and the floodgates for another debt-ceiling hostage crisis would open wide. (Insert evil laugh here.)

McConnell must have been shocked when Democrats were not who he thought they were. So he did what came most naturally, despite the fact he was doing it to his own proposal:

Reid objected at first, but told McConnell he thought it might be a good idea. After Senate staff reviewed the proposal, Reid came back to the floor and proposed a straight up-or-down vote on the idea.McConnell was forced to say no.

Thus McConnell, the Republican most responsible for the abuse of the filibuster in the current and previous Congress, drifted into self-parody. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York called McConnell's maneuver "a little too clever by half."

But as funny as this may be, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois struck on the real message: that real filibuster reform can't be an empty pledge from Democrats like it was in 2010. For Durbin, McConnell's move is just the latest evidence that real filibuster reform needs to happen this time:

"I don't know how the Republicans can say they're not abusing the filibuster after what we saw on the floor today," Durbin told reporters. "It's somewhat comic, but sad as well, that we've reached the point where Sen. McConnell will not even accept a majority vote on his own measure."

We're at the tipping point, again.

One organization is not waiting for Reid and the Democrats to deal with the filibuster. Common Cause staff counsel Stephen Spaulding described his lawsuit (which has a December 10 hearing date) that aims to have the filibuster declared unconstitutional during an appearance on Melissa Harris-Perry this past Sunday. "Contrary to popular belief in the world's most deliberative body, the 11th Commandment from God to Moses was not, 'Thou shalt need 60 votes to pass a bill.'"

Host Harris-Perry then brought up a key point: the super-majority requirement is meant to to protect the rights of the political minority, which McConnell now leads. Shouldn't the filibuster be maintained to protect that minority, and shouldn't Democrats tread a bit lightly here so that they don't end up in a situation where a simple majority of Republicans is able to rubber-stamp their own agenda should they ever gain more than 50 Senate seats again? Spaulding responded:

'The Constitution lays out when a super-majority is required. It's required to amend the Constitution. It's required to pass treaties. It's required to overcome a veto. It's not required to pass legislation. And the key thing is here, when we talk about the filibuster, we're not talking about Jimmy Stewart railing on the Senate floor as a matter of principle..."I don't care who's in power. I just want government to work!"

And there's the rub. Even if, for you, the hilarity of McConnell's filibuster fumble yesterday trumps all of the serious reform issues it spotlights, look at it this way: if the filibuster is reformed and senators are forced to make speeches again, think of how arresting it would have been if McConnell was forced to go full Jimmy Stewart in order to make the same kind of mistake. And if Common Cause gets its way and the filibuster dies, it will be entertainment enough to see how then Republicans devise new methods to obstruct President Obama's agenda.

Get your popcorn ready.

See below the second half of our MHP discussion about filibuster reform from this past Sunday.