Dems pause angry demands to end the filibuster in order to ... filibuster Ted Cruz's Nord Stream sanctions bill

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

I thought the funniest example of Democratic filibuster hypocrisy we’d see this week was Tom Cotton reciting Chuck Schumer’s old comments on the Senate floor.

Little did we know Schumer had something special of his own planned to put an exclamation point on the subject.

Ted Cruz proposed a bill that would sanction companies connected to the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, a conduit that will sideline Ukraine as a key energy gateway to western Europe. That’s a tricky bit of legislation for a Democratic Party that’s been obsessed with standing up to Putin since Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign. True Russia hawks should back Cruz’s bill. But the White House has asked Democrats not to, fearing that passing the bill would damage relations with Germany as the new sanctions began to bite German companies.

Biden and Schumer have spent the week demanding in the shrillest terms that the Senate revert to simple majority rule. Under simple majority rule, though, Cruz’s bill would pass. Forced to choose between basic logical consistency and obeying the White House, Schumer and his caucus rolled over for the president.

Senators voted 55-44 on Cruz’s legislation, falling short of the 60 votes needed for it to pass. Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Jacky Rosen (Nev.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.) joined every Republican save Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in voting for the bill…

Underscoring the dilemma for Democrats, many of whom previously voted for similar sanctions, senators stressed that they are alarmed about Russia and the pipeline, but that Cruz’s legislation isn’t the most effective response.

“We can’t look at this legislation in isolation. This legislation … is coming at a time when the administration is exhausting every single diplomatic avenue to deter Putin from further violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), adding that the pipeline is “leverage that the West can use at a pivotal moment.”

“Is this not disgraceful coddling of (colluding with?) Putin, using a racist, democracy-killing tool?!” asked Guy Benson, tongue in cheek, after Cruz’s bill was blocked. Fifty-five votes is enough for cloture in a filibuster-less Senate of the sort that Biden and Schumer want but not enough in the Senate we have. And no one was happier about that than Democrats who are on the ballot this fall, as four of the six who voted with Republicans in support of Cruz’s bill are up for reelection this year in swing states. Having the filibuster in place made it safe for them to cast a politically popular vote without fear that doing so would lead to the bill passing and putting Biden in an awkward position diplomatically.

The episode is the Democratic position distilled to its essence. When the filibuster gets in their way they want it gone yesterday but when it’s useful to them there are no qualms about putting it to use — and they’re perfectly capable of holding both positions simultaneously.

This week’s messaging on the filibuster has been a failure for Biden three times over. First, it gave Republicans a chance to remind the public that Democrats are two-faced and opportunistic on the subject, including the president himself. Second, it set Biden up to look weak by forcing him to make a great public display of pressuring Manchin and Sinema knowing that they’d almost certainly refuse him in the end. But the third failure was the worst because it was entirely self-inflicted: Biden’s speech on Tuesday was way more demagogic than it needed to be, betraying his promises on the trail in 2020 to bring the country together and prove that the two sides can be disagreeable without enmity. Peggy Noonan, who’s very far from being a “Let’s go, Brandon” righty, was aghast:

The speech itself was aggressive, intemperate, not only offensive but meant to offend. It seemed prepared by people who think there is only the Democratic Party in America, that’s it, everyone else is an outsider who can be disparaged. It was a mistake on so many levels. Presidents more than others in politics have to maintain an even strain, as astronauts used to say. If a president is rhetorically manipulative and divisive on a voting-rights bill it undercuts what he’s trying to establish the next day on Covid and the economy. The over-the-top language of the speech made him seem more emotional, less competent. The portentousness—“In our lives and . . . the life of our nation, there are moments so stark that they divide all that came before them from everything that followed. They stop time”—made him appear incapable of understanding how the majority of Americans understand our own nation’s history and the vast array of its challenges…

When national Democrats talk to the country they always seem to be talking to themselves. They are of the left, as is their constituency, which wins the popular vote in presidential elections; the mainstream media through which they send their messages is of the left; the academics, historians and professionals they consult are of the left. They get in the habit of talking to themselves, in their language, in a single, looped conversation. They have no idea how they sound to the non-left, so they have no idea when they are damaging themselves. But this week in Georgia Mr. Biden damaged himself. And strengthened, and may even have taken a step in unifying, the non-Democrats who are among their countrymen, and who are in fact the majority of them.

It’s one thing to take off the gloves with your opponents if you think you stand a meaningful chance of getting your way on policy by doing so. Biden took off the gloves despite knowing that he’d lose, and that members of his own party would be bruised by the punches he threw. But I think he was responding to “rational” political incentives in 2022: When you know you’re destined to disappoint your base, you have to compensate by being as nasty as possible to their enemies. Partisans can forgive a lot of policy failures if you’re making it up to them with demagoguery.