Lamar Alexander: Don't dump the filibuster

Posted on September 28, 2015

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s message might have been familiar, but he was aiming at a different audience.

The Maryville Republican went to the Senate floor last week to preach once again about the virtues of the filibuster and to try to stop a push by some lawmakers to nuke it.

But this time, he wasn’t lecturing Democrats. He was scolding his own party.

“Republicans who want to abolish the filibuster in the United States Senate are Republicans with short memories,” he began, launching into a nine-minute defense of the parliamentary stalling tactic, its long tradition in the Senate, its benefits in protecting the voice of the minority and the dangers that await any party looking to abolish it.

The speech was reminiscent of the good scolding he gave to Democrats two years ago, when they held the Senate majority and stopped Republicans from filibustering most of President Barack Obama’s nominees. The change did not prevent the filibuster of legislation, but a livid Alexander accused Democrats of a power grab and labeled the move tyranny.

Now it’s some Republicans who consider the filibuster a nuisance, rendering them incapable of pushing their own agenda through a Congress in which, for the first time in eight years, they hold a majority in the House and the Senate.

In just the past two weeks, Democrats have successfully used the filibuster to stop the Senate from voting on bills that would block the Iran nuclear deal and end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Exasperated, various House Republicans have called on the Senate to modify its filibuster rules so that a majority of 51 senators can approve some legislation. (The House doesn’t use the filibuster.)

“Some pieces of legislation, like the Iran nuclear deal, are simply so consequential that they demand revisions to the Senate’s procedures,” supporters of changing the filibuster rules wrote recently in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The letter was signed by 59 House Republicans.

Under current filibuster rules, the minority party can stall a bill by simply forcing nonstop debate on the measure, effectively killing it. The majority party can shut down the debate only if it can come up with 60 votes — a threshold that is difficult, if not impossible, to meet.

Alexander said he can understand why some Republicans are irritated with the filibuster.

“I think they’re frustrated with President Obama’s liberal agenda, and they’d like to be able to do anything Republicans want to do to stop it,” he said.

But if Republicans change the filibuster rules whenever they want to ram their agenda through Congress, then Democrats can — and probably will — do the same thing the next time they’re back in the majority, Alexander said.

“The filibuster protects the minority, and most of the time Republicans have been the minority needing protecting,” Alexander said. “Since World War II, Democrats have had complete control of the presidency and Congress 22 years, and we’ve had it for six. And during that 22 years, if we hadn’t had the Senate filibuster, Democrats could have passed any law they want.”

Republicans eager to end the filibuster should look to the future and what might happen if Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the presidency and Democrats regain control of the House and Senate, Alexander said.

With no filibuster to stop them, “in the first week, they’d abolish all of the state right-to-work laws,” Alexander said. “And I can’t think of anything that would hurt Tennessee more than that because the right-to-work law has been the single most important reason the automobile industry has moved to Tennessee.”

Democrats could raise taxes, ease abortion restrictions, enact more gun controls and end the secret ballot in union elections — and Republicans would be powerless to stop them, Alexander said.

Senate Republicans are not going to get rid of the filibuster, Alexander said, “because we know we’ve been the minority needing protection.” Democrats won’t agree to end the filibuster either, he said, because “the far left of the Democratic Party hates the Republican agenda at least as much as the far right of the Republican Party hates the Democratic agenda.”

So the filibuster is here to stay, Alexander said. And that’s good, he said, because it encourages consensus, “and consensus is the way you govern a complex country.”