After Government Shutdown, Calls For Filibuster Reform Grow

Jan 26, 2018

Now that the government’s lights are turned back on after last weekend’s three-day shutdown, Wyoming’s lawmakers are joining a growing chorus of Republicans calling for a change to how Congress conducts its day to day business.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political divide are breathing sighs of relief that they were able to seemingly save face and pass a bill to fund the government for a mere three weeks. Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi is the chair of the Budget Committee. While he utterly disagrees with the tactics employed, he understands the dynamics at play.

“Well, it's unfortunate that it happened and it's one way that the minority has some potential leverage, but I think everybody has to agree that it's bad leverage and shouldn't be done and I said that before the shutdown, I've said that since the shutdown. They really don't serve any purpose. Now, there's always some fiddling to save face, but that's all that ever comes out of them.”

The temporary shutdown of the government has renewed, even emboldened, Enzi’s repeated calls to move Congress from having to pass annual spending bills to splitting the duty into a two-year chore. He wants Congress to debate and pass the six most controversial spending bills the year after an election and then to take up the other spending bills the following year when every House member and one-third of the Senate have to face voters at the ballot box. Enzi is exploring ways to make government shutdowns more painful for people here in Washington.

“Government can continue on, but there has to be some consequence for us not finishing up… and it has to be a consequence that doesn't just affect senators, doesn't just affect the agencies out there, it has to affect every staff member as well if we want to have progress.”

Enzi has a trick up his sleeve for his evolving plan to inflict that pain, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to let us in on his plan.

“I'm inventing it, not saying.”  

Enzi does support efforts to streamline how the Senate works though, especially because Democrats have been slow-walking President Trump’s nominees.

“Well, in regard to nominees, we need to do something because as of two weeks ago at the rate we're going would take nine years and the president isn't going to be in office for nine years. Everyone can guarantee that.”  

But just tweaking the Senate filibuster rules for nominees isn’t good enough for many House Republicans, like Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney. She’s among a growing chorus of House lawmakers who are pressuring the Senate to drop the current 60-vote filibuster threshold for other items, like on the spending bill that just led to the partial government shutdown.

“I think we have to have a fundamentally changed system because of the Senate. And when you are in a situation- just in the debate just now on the floor we're in this situation where it takes 60 votes in the Senate. And when the Senate refuses to pass appropriations bills, I think they need to probably adopt a nuclear option for appropriations bills.”

When Cheney says “nuclear option,” she’s saying do the same thing Democrats said and eventually did under former President Obama, which was to blow up longstanding Senate precedent and lower the threshold to a majority of votes needed to confirm judges. Cheney wants that extended to military funding.

“At a minimum, I think they should look at doing that for the defense appropriations bill. I mean, if you're willing to do it for the confirmation of supreme court justice and other judges — which I think is the right move — when it comes to the security of the nation we really are in a situation where the system allows the Democrats to hold funding for the defense department hostage because they want amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul says small states like his and Wyoming need the filibuster to protect them from an activist Congress.

“You know, I think there's been more bad laws promoted than good laws in our history of our country so the filibuster actually stops a lot of dramatic changes in government, you know, that can be sometimes bad. I'm not really for changing the filibuster for legislation.”

And the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, is also dubious of lowering the filibuster threshold on spending bills.

“It would make the Senate, for all practical purposes, just like the House of Representatives and it would make the majority party ability to ignore the minority party and the minority party would be cut out of the process and you would have more erratic legislation and less moderation.”

Still, Wyoming’s junior senator John Barrasso disagrees with more senior Republicans like Grassley and says change is needed in the upper chamber in order to make the government move more smoothly.

“Well, it's something I've supported throughout — changed the rules — voted to do that on the Supreme Court justice and ready to do it now on the number of hours that it takes to get to a nominee as part of the Democrat obstruction of trying to get the president's nominees in place and on getting to spending bills that come out of committee in overwhelming support. I think it's important to do that as well to get them to the floor of the Senate then passed.”

Many Democrats who voted to change the filibuster rules in the Senate under President Obama now regret their knee-jerk reaction to gridlock, because it’s left them largely defenseless to combat what they see as President Trump’s most egregious nominees. Still, many rank and file Republicans are pushing their party leaders to make a similar move, even as they risk losing their majorities in November.