While the Democrats have held a voting majority in the Senate – if you count the tiebreaker, Vice President Harris – since the inauguration, the GOP held out on handing over control of the committees in hopes of getting a filibuster protection written into the rules. Without the legislative filibuster, Republicans would have next to no power in a government run by Democrat trifecta.
On Wednesday, February 3, 2021, they traded control of committees for … what? The assurance from two Democrats that they wouldn’t support ending the filibuster. Did Senate Republicans make a deal that guarantees relevance for the next couple of years – or did they just trade the last of their power for an empty promise?
When one party gains a majority in the Senate, it generally takes over the leadership of all the committees as well. But the Democrats’ majority this time only exists because the tiebreaker – the vice president – turned out to be a Democrat. Had Trump and Pence been re-elected, the exact same Senate turnout would have resulted in a GOP majority.
Senate leadership has been wrangling for a deal to share the power since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wanted a guarantee that the Democrats wouldn’t nuke the filibuster, meaning that Democrats wouldn’t be able to force legislation through along party lines – they would need to convince at least ten Republicans. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) refused to offer such a guarantee, and so the GOP held control of the committees for another two weeks after they lost the voting majority.
McConnell dropped his demand for protection once Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) said they wouldn’t support a vote to eliminate the filibuster. Senate Republicans had worked with the Democrats to confirm some of Biden’s Cabinet picks, but they stalled others, including attorney general nominee Merrick Garland. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who was Senate Judiciary Committee chairman before this deal, rejected the request to schedule Garland’s confirmation hearing for Feb. 8. He argued that the Senate should focus on Trump’s second impeachment trial before moving on to other matters. Right or wrong, the delay demonstrated just how important the committee chairs can be.
The Deal – Not Exactly 2001 Again
The McConnell-Schumer agreement was approved by unanimous consent Wednesday. The same number of Republicans and Democrats will be allowed in each committee – with the Democrat-caucusing Independents factoring as Democrats, of course. Each party will also get an even split of panel budgets. Democrats get all the committee chairs, though, and Schumer will set the agenda on the floor. Schumer promised not to block GOP amendments to bills unless “dilatory measures prevent the Senate from taking action and leave no alternatives.” In other words, he promises to let Republicans propose amendments to bills – until it’s convenient for him not to.
The new power-sharing agreement is based on the almost identical agreement of 2001 – but with two significant variations. The obvious difference is that it’s the Democrats rather than the Republicans who now hold the majority thanks to the vice president. The other, potentially more important difference is that the 2001 agreement was made by a Senate that could rely on the filibuster as a means for the minority to hold off partisan legislation that otherwise might be forced through by the majority.
Will the Final Filibuster Be Busted?
As Liberty Nation’s Graham J. Noble explained, “what has stayed the hands of previous Senate majorities – both Republican and Democrat – is the fear that eliminating the filibuster is only a good idea when you are the majority.”
But when Democrats ruled the roost back in 2013, the Senate majority leader at the time – Harry Reid of Nevada – employed the so-called nuclear option on votes to confirm all federal judges except for the Supreme Court. McConnell followed suit in 2017 as Senate majority leader, nuking the filibuster for Supreme Court justices to get Trump’s first pick, Neil Gorsuch, confirmed, but it was Democrats who started the tit-for-tat congressional nuclear war. “But they did it too” makes for a convenient excuse, regardless of who started it. After four years of bitter resistance just for the sake of resisting, why would McConnell expect the Democrats to play nice now that they’re on top?
With an even split down the middle of the Senate and all the committees, any votes that tie in a subcommittee will go before the full committee. Any committee vote that ties will go before the full Senate and any ties in the Senate will be broken by the Democrat vice president. With Democrats in control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, all that stands between Democrats and the passage of any law they like is the fact that Republicans can stave off a final party-line vote just by talking. Manchin and Sinema say they’re against the nuclear option now – but how many partisan bills to finally advance the progressive agenda are these two and the rest of the Senate Democrats willing to see delayed before the simple majority vote required to remove the possibility of delay “leaves no alternatives”? With Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 making its way through Congress, we may soon find out.
Read more from James Fite.