On April 7, 2017, less than four years ago, a majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate joined a majority of Republicans to sign a letter supporting the filibuster. The letter, to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Charles Schumer, began: “We are writing to urge you to support our efforts to preserve existing rules, practices and traditions as they pertain to the right of members to engage in extended debate on legislation before the United States Senate.”
The senators continued: “We are united in our determination to preserve the ability of members to engage in extended debate when bills are sent to the floor.” The Senate plays a “unique role” in the legislative process, the senators said, and that role should continue unchanged. “Therefore, we are asking you to join us in opposing any effort to curtail the existing rights and prerogatives of senators to engage in full, robust and extended debate as we consider legislation before this body in the future,” the letter concluded.
Thirty-three Democrats signed the letter — among them Sens. Chris Coons, Joe Manchin, Patrick Leahy, Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, Bob Casey, Jeanne Shaheen, Sherrod Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Mazie Hirono, Joe Donnelly, Tim Kaine, Sheldon Whitehouse and Bob Menendez. Some of the 33 are now gone, but most remain in the Senate today.
One of the filibuster supporters was then-Sen. Kamala Harris, now vice president of the United States.
Remember that in April 2017, Democrats were in the minority in the Senate. It was not surprising that they wanted to defend minority rights. But 28 Republicans, a majority of the Senate GOP, also signed the letter, even though the president, Donald Trump, was of their own party and supported eliminating the filibuster. Both leaders, Republican Majority Leader McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Schumer, opposed killing the filibuster.
Now, much has changed. Nearly all Senate Democrats, including Schumer, want to kill the filibuster. Only two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have publicly supported keeping it.
Their supporters condemn the filibuster as racist, a “relic of Jim Crow.” It is unclear why so many Democrats would have supported a “relic of Jim Crow” so recently, but in any event, they have now experienced moral enlightenment and want to eliminate the procedure.
Many Republicans, to their credit, hold the same position today, with a Democratic majority and a Democratic president, that they held a few years ago, with a Republican majority and a Republican president. McConnell is chief among them. And recently the now-minority leader delivered a devastating critique of the Democrats’ filibuster hypocrisy.
McConnell pointed to pro-filibuster statements made by Schumer and the second-ranking Senate Democrat, Richard Durbin. They supported the filibuster when they were in the minority just a short time ago, but now, McConnell said, “under pressure from the outside, many of our Democratic colleagues are abandoning their stated principles as fast as possible.”
Some Democrats are also pushing Manchin and Sinema to surrender. “The Senate Democrats who are pressuring our colleagues from Arizona and West Virginia to reverse themselves are not just arguing for some procedural tweak,” McConnell said. “They are arguing for a radically less stable and less consensus-driven system of government. Forget about enduring laws with broad support. Nothing in federal law would be settled.”
Most of the coverage of McConnell’s speech focused on his threat to slow Senate work to a crawl and to pass, if the filibuster is eliminated and Republicans win a simple majority, bills on issues that are anathema to Democrats, like defunding Planned Parenthood and outlawing sanctuary cities and allowing concealed carry nationwide. If doing such things is possible with a simple majority, McConnell vowed, Republicans will do them the first moment they can. “This pendulum would swing both ways — hard,” McConnell said.
But just as important for Republicans to note is the complete and utter hypocrisy of those Democrats who supported the filibuster a short time ago when Trump was president and Republicans controlled the Senate but now want to eliminate it when Joe Biden is president and Democrats (barely) control the Senate. What is unknown now is whether Manchin and Sinema, and perhaps some other currently silent Democratic senator, will save the party from itself.
— Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.