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The filibuster hurts only Senate Democrats — and Mitch McConnell knows that

The numbers don't lie.
Photo illustration of three elephants facing right, standing over piles of paper.
Republicans can use the filibuster all they want — but they can't be filibustered themselves.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

After days of uncertainty, Democrats are finally set to take full control of the Senate. The drama was all thanks to Republican leader Mitch McConnell's insistence that Democrats promise to leave the filibuster alone and keep it as it stands for the next two years.

McConnell caved Monday, but only because two senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, publicly promised that they wouldn't vote to abolish the filibuster, which they consider a core part of the Senate's identity.

But I urge them and others wavering on whether to keep the filibuster to consider this: You're only hurting yourself at this point. As things stand, the Republican Party's priorities can no longer effectively be blocked because of the 60-vote threshold. The filibuster hurts Democrats now, and it won't help later, making any argument to keep it in place an own goal of epic proportions.

This isn't just my opinion — the numbers back me up.

Cutting off debate in the Senate so legislation can be voted on is done through a procedure called "cloture," which requires three-fifths of the Senate — or 60 votes — to pass. I went through the Senate's cloture votes for the last dozen years from the 109th Congress until now, tracking how many of them failed because they didn't hit 60 votes. It's not a perfect method of tracking filibusters, but it's as close as we can get.

It's clear that Republicans have been much more willing — and able — to tangle up the Senate's proceedings than Democrats. More important, the filibuster was almost no impediment to Republican goals in the Senate during the Trump administration.

Until 2007, the number of cloture votes taken every year was relatively low, as the Senate's use of unanimous consent agreements skipped the need to round up supporters. While a lot of the cloture motions did fail, it was still rare to jump that hurdle at all — and even then, a lot of the motions were still agreed to through unanimous consent. That changed when Democrats took control of Congress in 2007 and McConnell first became minority leader. The number of cloture motions filed doubled compared to the previous year, from 68 to 139.

The filibuster was almost no impediment to Republican goals in the Senate during the Trump administration.

Things only got more dire as the Obama administration kicked off in 2009, with Democrats in control of the House, the Senate and the White House. Of the 91 cloture votes taken during the first two years of President Barack Obama's first term, 28 — or 30 percent — failed. All but three failed despite having majority support. The next Congress was much worse after the GOP took control of the House: McConnell's minority blocked 43 percent of all cloture votes taken from passing.

Things were looking to be on the same course at the start of Obama's second term. By November 2013, 27 percent of cloture votes had failed even though they had majority support. After months of simmering outrage over blocked nominees grew, Senate Democrats triggered the so-called nuclear option, dropping the number of votes needed for cloture to a majority for most presidential nominees, including Cabinet positions and judgeships.

The next year, Republicans took over the Senate with Obama still in office. By pure numbers, the use of the filibuster rules skyrocketed under the Democratic minority: 63 of 123 cloture votes failed, or 51 percent. But there's a catch: Nothing that was being voted on was covered by the new filibuster rules. McConnell had almost entirely stopped bringing Obama's judicial nominees to the floor, including Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

McConnell defended the filibuster on the Senate floor last week, reminding his counterparts of their dependence on it during President Donald Trump's term. "Democrats used it constantly, as they had every right to," he said. "They were happy to insist on a 60-vote threshold for practically every measure or bill I took up."

There wasn't actually all that much the Republicans wanted that needed to get past the filibuster in its reduced state after the 2013 rule change.

Except, if anything, use of the filibuster plummeted those four years. There are two main reasons: First, and foremost, the amount of in-party squabbling during the Trump years prevented any sort of coordinated legislative push from materializing.

Second, there wasn't actually all that much the Republicans wanted that needed to get past the filibuster in its reduced state after the 2013 rule change. McConnell's strategy of withholding federal judgeships from Obama nominees paid off in spades, letting him spend four years stuffing the courts with conservatives. And when Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, was filibustered, McConnell didn't hesitate to change the rules again. Trump's more controversial nominees also sailed to confirmation without any Democratic votes.

Legislatively, there were only two things Republicans really wanted: tax cuts and repeal of Obamacare. The Trump tax cuts they managed through budget reconciliation, a process that allows budget bills to pass through the Senate with just a majority vote. Republicans tried to do the same for health care in 2017 to avoid the filibuster, failing only during the final vote, when Sen. John McCain's "no" vote denied them a majority. The repeal wouldn't have gone through even if the filibuster had already been in the grave.

As a result, the number of successful filibusters plummeted: Over the last four years, an average of 7 percent of all cloture motions failed. In the last Congress, 298 cloture votes were taken, a record. Only 26 failed. Almost all of the votes that passed were on nominees to the federal bench or the executive branch.

In fact, if you stripped out the nominations considered in the first two years of Trump's term, the rate of failure would be closer to 15 percent — but on only 70 total votes. There just wasn't all that much for Democrats to get in the way of with the filibuster, which is why we didn't hear much complaining from Republicans.

Today's Democrats aren't in the same boat. Almost all of the big-ticket items President Joe Biden wants to move forward require both houses of Congress to agree. And given McConnell's previous success in smothering Obama's agenda for political gain, his warnings about the lack of "concern and comity" that Democrats are trying to usher in ring hollow.

In actuality, his warnings of "wait until you're in the minority again" shouldn't inspire concern from Democrats. So long as it applies only to legislation, the filibuster is a Republicans-only weapon. There's nothing left, it seems, for the GOP to fear from it — aside from its eventual demise.