Why Republican Threats Of Retaliation Call For More Filibuster Reform, Not Less

When Republicans became the Senate minority in 2007, the number of Senate filibusters immediately spiked to unprecedented levels — the number of votes seeking to break a filibuster doubled. So it’s unsurprising that these same Senate Republicans are now threatening scorched earth tactics if Senate Democrats take steps to restore the broken Senate’s ability to function:

Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules.

I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.”

It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”

Coburn and Cornyn’s comments echo those of Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who said at a conservative lawyers’ convention last week that Senate Republicans would meet even the most milquetoast and ineffective filibuster reform with “a strong and proportional response.” And Lee views a tactical nuke as a proportional response to a punch in the arm. The last time he felt slighted, Lee reacted by opposing every single one of President Obama’s nominees regardless of their qualifications or the importance of the job they were nominated to fill.

To be fair, neither Coburn nor Cornyn outline specifically how they would react to filibuster reform, and Lee is an increasingly marginal figure even within his own caucus. But their comments highlight why it is dangerous for Senate Democrats to push weaksauce filibuster reform — such as merely eliminating one of two opportunities to filibuster a bill or requiring “talking” filibusters where just one senator can keep a filibuster alive by defending it on the Senate floor — as opposed to serious rules changes that will make filibustering difficult and painful. Nothing in the career of Mike Lee, or, for that matter, Jim DeMint (R-SC) or Rand Paul (R-KY) or Ted Cruz (R-TX), suggests that these men will not eagerly spend as long as it takes giving serial speeches on the Senate floor if doing so will frustrate one of President Obama’s goals.

There are serious filibuster reform proposals on the table, including proposals built around requiring filibustering senators to defend their filibuster on the Senate floor. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), for example, proposed requiring up to 20 senators to remain on the Senate floor at all times in order to maintain a filibuster, thus imposing a meaningful physical cost on senators who would prefer to spend that time sleeping, meeting with lobbyists or raising money. But Senate Democrats should be under no illusions that they can fix the Senate simply by taking away one of many avenues for obstructionism — or by giving professional grandstanders a new opportunity to grandstand. Senate Republicans have already announced their intention to retaliate against reformers, the goal for reformers must be preempting that retaliation by pushing real reform.