Editor’s note: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the filibuster Tuesday in a floor speech transcribed below. McConnell’s remarks came a day after Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin spoke out against the filibuster, tweeting: “The filibuster has a death grip on American democracy. It’s time we end its power to hold the Senate hostage.”
Mr. President, today I’d like to begin with a few quotations.
“The legislative filibuster is the most important distinction between the Senate and the House. Without the 60-vote threshold for legislation, the Senate becomes a majoritarian institution, just like the House, much more subject to the winds of short-term electoral change. No senator would like to see that happen. So, let’s find a way to further protect the 60-vote rule for legislation.”
That was the current Democratic leader, Sen. [Chuck] Schumer, in April of 2017, less than four years ago.
Here’s another quote, Mr. President: “What about the nuclear option doing away with the filibuster? I can tell you that would be the end of the Senate as it was originally devised and created going back to our Founding Fathers. 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.”
That was the assistant Democratic leader, Sen. [Dick] Durbin, in 2018, about three years ago.
A few years ago, 33 members of the Senate side signed a letter insisting that, “We preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions regarding legislation.” Now, under pressure from the outside, many of our Democratic colleagues are abandoning their stated principles as fast as possible.
Yesterday, Sen. Durbin said the filibuster is not a core principle, but, “an off-handed clerical suggestion. An off-handed clerical suggestion.” A number of Senate Democrats are trying to pressure the senior senators from West Virginia and Arizona to abandon their own very recent commitments to honor the central rule of the Senate.
Now, Mr. President, the framers designed the Senate to require deliberation, to force cooperation, and to ensure that federal laws and our big, diverse country earn broad enough buy-in to receive the lasting consent of the governed.
James Madison said the Senate should be “a complicated check against improper acts of legislation.” Thomas Jefferson said, “Great innovation should not be forced on slender majorities.”
Senate Democrats parroted all these arguments when they were the ones benefiting from minority protection. When President [Donald] Trump pressed Republicans to kill the filibuster, our Democrat colleagues cried foul.
And when our Republican majority stood on principle and refused to wreck the rules, our Democratic colleagues happened to use the filibuster themselves.
In some cases, they flat-out blocked legislation like Sen. Tim Scott’s police reform bill. In many other cases, Democrats did what minority parties always do and leveraged the existence of the filibuster to influence must-pass legislation long before it got to the floor.
There’s so much emphasis on the most extreme bills that either party might pass with a simple majority. People forget that the Senate 60-vote threshold is the only reason, the only reason, that any routine must-pass legislation is bipartisan except during divided government. Big funding deals, appropriation bills, farm bills, highway bills, the [National Defense Authorization Act]—the Senate 60-vote threshold backstops all of it.
It’s not just about controversial items, it’s about everything we do.
The Senate Democrats who are pressuring our colleagues from Arizona and West Virginia to reverse themselves are not just arguing for some procedural tweak … They’re arguing for a radically less stable and less consensus-driven system of government.
Forget about enduring laws with broad support. Nothing in federal law would ever be settled. Does anyone really believe the American people were voting for an entirely new system of government by electing Joe Biden to the White House and a 50-50 Senate?
This is a 50-50 Senate. There was no mandate to completely transform America by the American people on Nov. 3. That may be what a few liberal activists want, but does anyone believe that millions of Americans thought that’s what they were electing? Of course not.
There’s an ironic element to this whole conversation. Some Democratic senators seem to imagine this would be a tidy trade-off, if they could just break the rules on a razor-thin majority. Sure, it might damage the institution, but then nothing would stand between them and their entire agenda, a new era of fast-track policymaking.
But, Mr. President, anyone who really knows the Senate knows that’s not what would happen.
So let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues. Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like. None of us have served one minute in the Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent.
This is an institution that requires unanimous consent to turn the lights on before noon, to proceed with a garden-variety floor speech, to dispense with the reading of lengthy legislative texts, to schedule committee business, to move even non-controversial nominees at anything besides a snail’s pace.
So, Mr. President, I want our colleagues to imagine a world where every single task, every one of them, requires a physical quorum—which, by the way, the vice president does not count in determining a quorum.
Everything that Democrat senators did to Presidents [George W.] Bush and Trump, everything the Republican Senate did to President [Barack] Obama, would be child’s play compared to the disaster that Democrats would create for their own priorities, if they break the Senate.
So this is not a trade-off between trampling etiquette, but then getting to quickly transform the country. That’s a false choice.
Even the most basic aspects of our colleagues’ agenda, the most mundane task of the Biden presidency, would actually be harder—harder, not easier—were Democrats in a post-nuclear Senate that is 50-50 dead even.
If the Democrats break the rules to kill Rule 22 on a 50-50 basis, then we will use every other rule to make tens of millions of Americans’ voices heard.
Perhaps the majority would come after the other rules next. Perhaps Rule 22 would just be the first domino of many, until the Senate ceased to be distinct from the House in any respect.
This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change. It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup, nothing moving.
And then there’s the small matter that majorities are actually never permanent. The last time a Democratic leader was trying to start a nuclear exchange, I remember offering a warning. I said my colleagues would regret it a lot sooner than they thought. And just a few years and a few Supreme Court vacancies later, many of our Democratic colleagues said publicly that they did.
Touching the hot stove again would yield the same result, but even more dramatic.
As soon as Republicans wound up back in the saddle, we wouldn’t just erase every liberal change that hurt the country, we’d strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero, zero, input from the other side.
How about this, nationwide right-to-work for working Americans? Defunding Planned Parenthood in sanctuary cities on Day One. A whole new era of domestic energy production, sweeping new protections for conscience and the right to life of the unborn. Concealed-carry reciprocity in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Massive hardening of security on our southern border.
We saw during amendment votes just days ago that some common sense for Republican positions actually enjoy more support right now than some of the Democratic committee chairs’ priorities, and this is with them and the majority.
So the pendulum, Mr. President, would swing both ways and it would swing hard.
My colleagues and I have refused to kill the Senate for instant gratification. In 2017 and 2018, I was lobbied to do exactly what Democrats wanted to do now. A sitting president leaned on me to do it. He tweeted about it.
What did I do, Mr. President? I said to the president at that time, “No.” I said, “No,” repeatedly. Because becoming a U.S. senator comes with higher duties than steamrolling any obstacle to short-term power. I meant it. Republicans meant it.
Less than two months ago, two of our Democratic colleagues said they mean it too. If they keep their word, we have a bipartisan majority that can put principle first and keep the Senate safe.
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