One of the surprising themes of this weekend’s Values Voter Summit was the number of speakers who demanded the elimination of the legislative filibuster in the U.S. Senate as a way to clear a path for passage of right-wing legislation.
Senate filibuster rules are meant to encourage bipartisanship, negotiation and compromise by requiring the consent of 60 senators to end debate on an issue and bring it to a vote. Senate rules are often frustrating to the party in power, but are part of the federal government’s structural checks and balances. They force the Senate to operate differently from the House of Representatives, where simple majority rules.
During President Obama’s two terms, Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell used, misused and abused every procedural weapon in their arsenal to obstruct action on his agenda and his executive and judicial branch nominees. Eventually, Senate Democrats eliminated the 60-vote filibuster for lower-court judicial nominees in the face of across-the-board and ongoing GOP intransigence. This year, following the unprecedented, nearly year-long blockade of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Republicans immediately lowered the filibuster threshold for Supreme Court nominees in order to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch. The legislative filibuster, however, has been preserved.
But some right-wing leaders have suddenly discovered that they believe that the legislative filibuster is unconstitutional. Or at least, they have decided to embrace that argument as justification for doing away with the rules so that they can take advantage of the current, probably temporary, window in which they control the White House and both houses of Congress. Right-wing House leaders, backed by Religious Right leaders and Steve Bannon, are demanding that the Senate do away with the filibuster so that they can push their entire agenda into law while they have the political muscle to do so.
The 60-vote filibuster came under attack during the summit’s first panel, which featured right-wing House members Vicky Hartzler, Mark Walker and Mike Johnson. Hartzler raised the issue first; Walker said current Republican dominance creates a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to pass tax reform.
The panel was followed by Rep. Mark Meadows, head of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, who picked up the anti-filibuster message, saying “it is time that we get rid of the 60-vote cloture rule in the Senate and start ruling like a majority.” Meadows also foreshadowed Bannon’s declaration of civil war within the GOP, comparing some of his Republican colleagues to “duds”—bullets that are defective and don’t fire—but have been left in the chamber anyway. “It’s time that we eject them,” he said.
The anti-filibuster rhetoric continued at lunchtime for those who attend the American Family Association Action luncheon honoring Roy Moore, the twice-ousted Alabama chief justice who just won a Republican Senate primary with backing from Bannon and the Religious Right. Before Moore spoke, AFA Action Vice President Rob Chambers showed a slide featuring the photos of 30 Republican senators he said were “participating in Democratic obstruction by supporting the continuation of filibuster rules.”
Moore himself took up the filibuster rule, saying “I’ll tell the president how to get rid of it. It’s unconstitutional.” The Senate, he said, has “no right to have such a rule,” adding that it “should be gone tomorrow.”
“Let’s get it gone, because it’s not supposed to be there,” he said. “It prevents getting to issues. You’re hiding behind things, and not voting on bills, like the abortion bill that’s coming up. We’ve got to get rid of it and get back to the Constitution.”
The rhetoric continued on Saturday as part of Bannon’s declaration of war against the Republican establishment. He warned senators worried about keeping their jobs to abandon McConnell and clear the path for Trump’s agenda by advocating against the filibuster.
Even anti-abortion activist David Daleiden got in on the act, saying it would be possible to defund Planned Parenthood “if the U.S. Senate would do its job, abolish the filibuster and return to constitutional order.”
The Heritage Foundation, a Values Voter Summit sponsor in some previous years but not listed as one this year, may need some convincing. In April, it published a commentary arguing that preserving the legislative filibuster is “critical” for conservatives. Sen. Mike Lee, usually admired by self-styled “constitutional conservatives,” defended the filibuster at a Heritage policy session last year.
But the number of Values Voter Summit speakers who called for elimination of the filibuster suggests that Bannon and the right-wing troops rallying to his leadership will have little patience for the arguments of “insiders” or their long-term considerations about what is good for the country. Like Bannon, they’re out to do as much damage to the federal government as they can while they have Republican majorities in Congress and a president willing to sign what they send him. We’ll find out soon whether the filibuster will be one line of attack in the “civil war” Bannon has launched against his fellow Republicans.