Midnight Mitch: Here's what happens if you kill the filibuster

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Earlier this month I took a look at some of Chuck Schumer’s pie-in-the-sky plans to do away with or drastically modify the filibuster and speculated on what might follow if he managed to pull off his plan. Near the top of my list of possible options was a scenario where the Senate Republicans would hammer through a number of stalled GOP proposals and force the Democrats to vote on them. Given that we’re in a midterm election year, Democrats in potentially vulnerable seats would likely start getting squeamish about some of those votes and the idea of going on the record about them. Well, last night, Mitch McConnell proposed almost exactly the same thing as a warning to Schumer not to try to tamper with the filibuster rules. The response from Schumer did, I must admit, catch me by surprise. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required.)

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) issued a pre-emptive threat to Senate Democrats considering an overhaul of the chamber’s longstanding filibuster rule, detailing a plan to force tough votes on GOP-sponsored bills if Democrats make even modest changes.

Those votes would include contentious subjects such as blocking vaccines mandates or stopping fracking bans, his office said. Aides familiar with Mr. McConnell’s thinking say the threat is intended to cause heartburn for Democrats as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) tries to unify his caucus ahead of possible votes to amend or abolish the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold in the next week.

“Since Sen. Schumer is hellbent on trying to break the Senate, Republicans will show how this reckless action would have immediate consequences,” the Senate minority leader said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.

As I already said, Schumer must be getting desperate because the response he offered was not at all what I expected. He took to the floor and made a counterproposal to McConnell. If all fifty Republicans agreed, he would move to hold up-or-down votes at a simple majority threshold on each of 18 stalled Republican bills, provided the GOP would vote on the two Democratic “voting rights” bills. Schumer called the GOP measures “gotcha bills” and insisted that he wouldn’t be deterred, saying, “We Democrats aren’t afraid of these votes.”

That shuffling sound you hear in the background is being caused by all the chairs of the Democrats who are slowly edging away from Schumer right now. There are plenty of GOP measures that Democrats will not want to be put on the record for if they are up for election in November. Schumer doesn’t have to worry about his seat, but some of his members know that a vote in favor of drilling bans won’t look very good while voters are watching the price of gasoline and home heating oil continue to rise. If they are similarly forced to vote in favor of keeping federal mandates for things like face masks and vaccinations, there could easily be enough people out there who would be put off by that to flip a few contested seats. There are more examples on the list.

Surprisingly, Schumer tried to force McConnell’s hand by calling for a unanimous consent vote on his offer to the Minority Leader. Mitch was then forced to object to the request to prevent it from going forward. In other words, it was a short-lived standoff, and Chuck Schumer seemed to come out on top.

That doesn’t mean that anything radical will happen as a result. The Democrats still can’t do anything to eliminate or weaken the filibuster without having every single one of their members behind the plan. And that still isn’t the case. We haven’t heard a single Republican suggest that they would break ranks, while the Democrats have more members than just Manchin and Sinema to worry about.

The closer we get to the midterms, the lower the chances that anyone is going to risk their political careers to bail out Schumer’s plan. While it’s still not impossible, the odds of any more of Joe Biden’s agenda making it to his desk appear to be fading further each day.