Things only got more dire as the Obama administration kicked off in 2009, with Democrats in control of the House, the Senate and the White House. Of the 91 cloture votes taken during the first two years of President Barack Obama’s first term, 28 — or 30 percent — failed. All but three failed despite having majority support. The next Congress was much worse after the GOP took control of the House: McConnell’s minority blocked 43 percent of all cloture votes taken from passing.
Things were looking to be on the same course at the start of Obama’s second term. By November 2013, 27 percent of cloture votes had failed even though they had majority support. After months of simmering outrage over blocked nominees grew, Senate Democrats triggered the so-called nuclear option, dropping the number of votes needed for cloture to a majority for most presidential nominees, including Cabinet positions and judgeships.
The next year, Republicans took over the Senate with Obama still in office. By pure numbers, the use of the filibuster rules skyrocketed under the Democratic minority: 63 of 123 cloture votes failed, or 51 percent. But there’s a catch: Nothing that was being voted on was covered by the new filibuster rules. McConnell had almost entirely stopped bringing Obama’s judicial nominees to the floor, including Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
McConnell defended the filibuster on the Senate floor last week, reminding his counterparts of their dependence on it during President Donald Trump’s term. “Democrats used it constantly, as they had every right to,” he said. “They were happy to insist on a 60-vote threshold for practically every measure or bill I took up.”
There wasn’t actually all that much the Republicans wanted that needed to get past the filibuster in its reduced state after the 2013 rule change.
Except, if anything, use of the filibuster plummeted those four years. There are two main reasons: First, and foremost, the amount of in-party squabbling during the Trump years prevented any sort of coordinated legislative push from materializing.
Second, there wasn’t actually all that much the Republicans wanted that needed to get past the filibuster in its reduced state after the 2013 rule change. McConnell’s strategy of withholding federal judgeships from Obama nominees paid off in spades, letting him spend four years stuffing the courts with conservatives. And when Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, was filibustered, McConnell didn’t hesitate to change the rules again. Trump’s more controversial nominees also sailed to confirmation without any Democratic votes.
Legislatively, there were only two things Republicans really wanted: tax cuts and repeal of Obamacare. The Trump tax cuts they managed through budget reconciliation, a process that allows budget bills to pass through the Senate with just a majority vote. Republicans tried to do the same for health care in 2017 to avoid the filibuster, failing only during the final vote, when Sen. John McCain’s “no” vote denied them a majority. The repeal wouldn’t have gone through even if the filibuster had already been in the grave.
As a result, the number of successful filibusters plummeted: Over the last four years, an average of 7 percent of all cloture motions failed. In the last Congress, 298 cloture votes were taken, a record. Only 26 failed. Almost all of the votes that passed were on nominees to the federal bench or the executive branch.
In fact, if you stripped out the nominations considered in the first two years of Trump’s term, the rate of failure would be closer to 15 percent — but on only 70 total votes. There just wasn’t all that much for Democrats to get in the way of with the filibuster, which is why we didn’t hear much complaining from Republicans.
Today’s Democrats aren’t in the same boat. Almost all of the big-ticket items President Joe Biden wants to move forward require both houses of Congress to agree. And given McConnell’s previous success in smothering Obama’s agenda for political gain, his warnings about the lack of “concern and comity” that Democrats are trying to usher in ring hollow.
In actuality, his warnings of “wait until you’re in the minority again” shouldn’t inspire concern from Democrats. So long as it applies only to legislation, the filibuster is a Republicans-only weapon. There’s nothing left, it seems, for the GOP to fear from it — aside from its eventual demise.