Though seemingly forgotten by most TV talking heads, it was only three years ago, when the Republicans had control of both the White House and Congress – and “filibuster” was a dirty word.
It was usually coupled with “obstructionist” amid demands that any of George W. Bush’s proposals deserved “an up-or-down vote.”
Yet now, with the Democrats holding the White House and Congress, the Republicans and the Washington press corps have come to view the filibuster fondly, as a valued American tradition, a time-honored part of a healthy legislative process.
Today, it’s seen as a good thing that Democrats must muster 60 votes in the Senate to pass almost anything.
When the TV pundits talk about Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan squeaking through the Senate, they're actually referring to a vote that might fall in the range of 60 or more yes votes to perhaps 38 no’s, a three-touchdown “squeaker.”
The only thing close about the vote is whether the package can overcome a Republican filibuster and get 60 votes for “cloture.” To reach this super-majority, Democrats have been forced to accept a higher percentage of tax cuts, even if leading economists consider tax cuts one of the least effective ways of stimulating the moribund economy.
Yet, this anti-democratic fact about the GOP strategy – that it seeks to frustrate the will of the American majority, which rejected the Republicans and their policies in the last two U.S. elections – is rarely mentioned in the news.
Nor is the fact that Republicans railed against even a hint of a filibuster when the Democrats were in the minority just a few years ago.
Back then, when the Republicans controlled everything, the big story was how a threatened Democratic filibuster against, say, one of Bush’s right-wing judicial nominations would be met by the Republican “nuclear option” – using a majority-vote on a rule change to eliminate the filibuster permanently.
For instance, in 2006, when Bush wanted to put Samuel Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court, the move amounted to a direct threat to the Republic. Alito was a staunch believer in the imperial presidency, a promoter of a “unitary executive” who would wield unlimited powers at a time of war – and the “war on terror” promised to be an endless war.
If confirmed, Alito would join three other justices – John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – who shared his extreme views, and possibly another, Anthony Kennedy, who was considered only slightly more moderate.
In effect, the Alito nomination raised the specter of five right-wing justices effectively gutting the U.S. Constitution and its checks and balances in favor of Bush’s personal rule.
With the future of the American Republic in the balance and Bush short of 60 votes in favor of Alito, a filibuster could have stopped this radical nomination in its tracks and could have forced Bush to select a less extreme nominee.
Many in the Democratic “base” urged Senate Democrats to use the filibuster at this critical moment – a time when Bush was viewing himself as a new-age monarch and his political aides were fantasizing about a “permanent Republican majority,” transforming the United States into a virtual one-party state with the Democrats kept around as a cosmetic appendage.
As this drama played out, the Washington news media weighed in heavily against a Democratic filibuster, essentially repeating Republican talking points about the need to give the President’s nominee an up-or-down vote and bemoaning the anti-democratic nature of the filibuster.
Republican leaders thundered that any use of the filibuster against Alito or other Bush judicial nominees would force them to go “nuclear” by outlawing filibusters forever. Then, the Republicans could ram through whomever – or whatever – they wanted.
Rather than call the Republicans’ bluff, “moderate” Democratic senators joined a bipartisan group called the “Gang of 14,” which agreed to forego filibusters except in “extraordinary circumstances.” And despite the alarm of many Americans about Bush’s moves to eradicate the Republic, this “gang” did not believe Alito’s confirmation reached the “extraordinary” standard.
So, when a few Democratic senators led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts tried to mount a filibuster, the Senate Democratic leadership refused to put up a fight, even as their former standard bearer was mocked by Republicans as a “Swiss Miss” for first urging the filibuster while he was attending an economic conference in Davos, Switzerland.
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan piled on Kerry at a White House press briefing. “I think even for a senator, it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps,” McClellan laughed.
In support of his filibuster, Kerry could line up only 25 votes, while the Republicans amassed 72 votes for cloture – a dozen more than the 60 needed to shut off debate. Those votes included 19 Democrats.
On the final confirmation vote, however, Alito was approved by a much smaller margin, 58-42, meaning that he could have been kept off the Supreme Court if all those who considered him a poor choice had backed the filibuster.
[As for the fate of the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy turned out to be less of an extremist than some Republicans had hoped. He joined with more moderate justices in key 5-to-4 opinions that rebuffed President Bush’s assertions of unlimited powers.]
Despite the timidity of Senate Democrats in the Alito battle, an energized Democratic “base” – joined by Republican constitutionalists – fought on against the “permanent-Republican-majority” dreams of Bush, Karl Rove and the neoconservatives. In November 2006, the Republicans were repudiated at the polls.
Suddenly in the congressional minority, the Republicans did a flip-flop on the filibuster, discovering the high principles behind the tactic. The GOP used the filibuster routinely in 2007 and 2008 to block Democratic initiatives, especially any challenges to Bush’s expansive claims of executive authority.
Typical of the modern Washington press corps, its leading voices changed, too, joining the Republican chorus hailing the filibuster as an honored tradition of democracy and finding value in the need for the Democrats to muster 60 Senate votes to pass any significant bill.
Today, the press corps continues in that pattern, forgetting the GOP’s earlier contempt for the filibuster and treating its use by the Republican minority against the stimulus bill as normal.
There are rarely any comments about obstructionism, nor are the Republicans compared to the Southern segregationists who famously used the filibuster to resist civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s.
Given this pass by the press, Republicans are making the filibuster their chief weapon in pressuring Obama and congressional Democratic to accept more of a Republican-style stimulus bill with less spending and more tax cuts, regardless of whether that represents the best hope for the U.S. economy.
But the stimulus battle is likely to be only the first taste of the GOP strategy to hobble the Obama presidency. The Republicans can be expected to use the filibuster again and again to prevent many of the social and economic changes that the American voters endorsed in November 2008, policies like national health insurance and spending on long-neglected domestic needs.
In this obstructionism, the Republicans appear to have a powerful ally in the Washington press corps that – with few exceptions – treats the GOP’s promiscuous use of filibusters as some responsible application of a time-honored tradition. The press also forgets to remind the U.S. public that just a few years ago, the Republicans hated filibusters.
[For more of Consortiumnews.com’s coverage of the Alito nomination, see “Alito & the Point of No Return,” Or take a look at another historical moment “When Republicans Loved a Filibuster.” Or see our book,Neck Deep.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on February 9, 2009.