House GOP Has Message for Senate on Shutdown: Nuke the Filibuster

McCarthy, other lawmakers joins Trump in reiterating call for changes

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy renewed his call for the Senate to change its rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy renewed his call for the Senate to change its rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 20, 2018 at 6:00pm

Updated Sunday, 1:18 p.m. | House Republicans say Senate Democrats are holding government funding “hostage” to their demands on immigration. And they’ve got an idea for ending the crisis: Throw away the filibuster.

The legislative tool of the minority is one of the few remaining things that distinguish the Senate from the House. The Senate GOP is coming under pressure from House Republicans and President Donald Trump to pursue the so-called nuclear option — change chamber rules and end the legislative filibuster, at least on spending bills.

“If a majority is good enough in the House and a majority would have kept government from shutting down, I think that’s a whole case the American public would say, ‘That’s a responsible way to govern,’” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Roll Call on Saturday.  

Asked if he thinks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would consider ending the legislative filibuster — coming on the heels of recent rule changes to lower the threshold to advance executive and judicial nominees by a majority only — McCarthy said, “That’s a question for Mitch.”

McConnell has always shied away from the idea, whether floated by House Republicans or  Trump. The Kentucky Republican reiterated his position Sunday, saying on the Senate floor that he supports the right to filibuster “from an institutional point of view.”

Trump, however, is likely to continue his push to nix it. One of the president’s more memorable tweets from last May said, in part, “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”

Another part of the same tweet suggested that a government shutdown could be the impetus for cutting the vote threshold so that 60 votes are no longer required to overcome hurdles in the Senate. 

On Sunday, the second day of the shutdown, Trump reaffirmed that position with a new tweet. 

“If stalemate continues, Republicans should go to 51% (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget, no C.R.’s!” he wrote. 

Not enough votes?

There are four GOP senators opposed to the current stopgap spending bill. It would take only two to block an effort to change the rules.

Senate Democrats would certainly oppose such a change. 

“That would be the end of the Senate as it was originally devised and created, going back to our Founding Fathers,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “We have to acknowledge our respect for the minority, and that is what the Senate tries to do in its composition and in its procedure.”

Sen. Chris Coons also threw cold water on the idea.  

“This is another example of President Trump throwing a tweet in the middle of bipartisan negotiations that are making progress,” the Delaware Democrat told “Fox News Sunday.” “I think Sen. McConnell, the Republican majority leader, in the end will have much more to say about how the Senate is run.”

Last April, McConnell pledged to leave the rules for ending debate on legislation untouched so long as he was GOP leader.

“There’s no sentiment to change the legislative filibuster,” he said at the time.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman, deflected when asked Saturday about the House GOP’s calls to remove the filibuster at least on spending bills. 

“We need to get the government open first,” he said. “I’m sure that’s something we can — we’ve been discussing off and on.”

Low optimism

While House Republicans would love for McConnell to go nuclear, they’re not optimistic about that happening. 

“Everybody pulls out their wish lists at these times. That would certainly be on the wish lists of many House Republicans,” House Freedom Caucus member Mark Sanford said, confirming it’s on his. “I don’t imagine there’s a lot of currency on that one.”

The South Carolina Republican said talk of changing the filibuster rules is not the main topic of debate but rather more of a political leverage point.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows also said he doesn’t see the filibuster rules changing.

“But I can say that if we hadn’t had the filibuster rules in place, we wouldn’t have had a government shutdown because we had 50 yeas last night,” the North Carolina Republican said, referring to the Senate’s Friday night vote, 50-49, rejecting a motion to cut off debate on the House-passed four-week continuing resolution.  

“So if there is ever a case for a 50-vote threshold for appropriations, we saw that on the Senate floor,” Meadows said.

House Republicans have long expressed their preference for the Senate getting rid of the legislative filibuster. Even Speaker Paul D. Ryan bemoans the 60-vote threshold for ending debate.

“You ask any House member about the filibuster, you’ll get an hour of frustration,” the Wisconsin Republican said at an event in his district Jan. 12.

The topic comes up quite frequently in House GOP conference meetings, especially when the House is in danger of getting jammed by the Senate (a common occurrence).

“If I had a dollar for every time it’s mentioned on the House side, I’d be a billionaire,” Meadows said.

Changing the filibuster rules is possibly the only escape hatch Republicans have for ending the shutdown without striking a deal with Democrats.

“There are really two ways that you can end this shutdown very, very quickly,” Freedom Caucus member Andy Biggs said. “Number one, the Democrats come to their senses. Number two, the Senate just says, ‘We’re going to change the rules, and we’re going to make the rules constitutional so that every American gets the representation of their senator that they thought they were getting.’ That is to say, each senator’s vote has the same value, as opposed to this rule, which dilutes the value of some votes.”

Asked which of those two options he thinks is more likely to occur, the Arizona Republican laughed and said, “Probably not the latter option.”

Not just conservatives

It’s not just conservative hard-liners who think the Senate should change its rules. Rep. Chris Collins, a member of the moderate Tuesday Group who is also a Trump ally, thinks it is a good idea.

“My message to Mitch McConnell is very simple: get rid of the filibuster — on all legislation, absolutely,” the New York Republican said. “Let’s be done with that archaic nonsense rule, once and for all.”

The shutdown provides even more justification to do so, Collins said, adding that “then they can blame us.”

“If you want to blame the Republicans, then get rid of the filibuster,” he said, addressing Senate Democrats.

Indiana Rep. Luke Messer, who chairs House Republicans’ policy committee, agreed that the filibuster “is an archaic rule from a bygone age.”

“It wasn’t in the Constitution,” he said. “It’s a product of the last 100 years. Maybe sometime in the past it used to promote bipartisanship, but I think it’s become a tool of partisan gamesmanship and it puts the minority party in charge.”

Messer is running for Senate and faces a competitive primary field, which includes fellow GOP Rep. Todd Rokita, for the right to take on the Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly.

Ending the filibuster is part of Messer’s campaign platform. He said he released a three-step plan to overhaul the Senate last week that calls for that change.

“The American people are frustrated. They are tired of sending new leaders to Washington and nothing changing,” Messer said. “You know there’s a whole lot of different things that hold up legislation in the cumbersome, broad process. I think the right answer is to allow a majority vote in both the House and the Senate.”

Messer expressed hope that the government shutting down might urge McConnell to reconsider ending the legislative filibuster.

“In the past, it was the gridlock on judicial nominations that caused the force in the change of the filibuster rule for judicial nominations,” he said. “I think we’re now seeing that the filibuster doesn’t work for government funding either. So hopefully at a minimum they’ll look at changing the filibuster for funding bills. But my position is that it should go away entirely.”

Niels Lesniewski and Joe Williams contributed to this report.