GOP activists: Dems’ filibuster repeal could actually help undo Obamacare

John Rossomando Contributor
Font Size:

Democrats could unintentionally make it easier to repeal the president’s health care reform law if they go ahead with plans to change the filibuster rule, according to senior GOP activists.

The proposal being introduced by New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall and Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley would end the use of secret holds to block debate in the Senate and would require senators to openly carry on their filibusters on the Senate floor. Other options being discussed in the Democratic caucus include holding a vote to allow a filibuster — instead of a vote to end one — and limiting its use.

“The political advantage of such a change is mixed at best and might even favor the Republicans in the short term,” said Bill Wichterman, who has worked as a top aide to former President George W. Bush and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  “The question is whether this is good for the nation, and that is a decided no.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, expressed dismay over the Democrats’ zeal for changing the filibuster rule because Democrats could find themselves in the minority after the 2012 elections.

The Democrats currently hold a three-seat majority, which Norquist believes makes GOP control over the chamber a distinct possibility come 2013.

“If they change the filibuster then the Republicans could come in and undo everything Obama has done in two years,” Norquist said.

Norquist also called on conservative groups to mount a letter-writing campaign to senators asking them to reject the proposed rule change.

Consequently, it would take 51 votes to repeal the health care law and other legislation Republicans object to in the Senate instead of the current 60 votes, which is needed to break a filibuster.

Merkley, Udall and their supporters claim Republican filibustering has crippled the Senate as an institution and changes are needed.

“We will respect the Senate’s unique history of unfettered debate and ensure that the minority’s voice is heard,” Udall wrote in a recent Washington Post opinion piece. “But we will prevent the chamber’s rules from being manipulated to allow a small minority to silently obstruct the will of the majority.”

Merkley  recently told The Washington Post he is not looking to completely abolish the filibuster, but rather make it so senators wishing to filibuster “put more energy into it” by being present filibustering on the floor of the Senate instead of secretly filing an objection with the Senate clerk.

“When the Senate is unable to fill key government jobs and judgeship or enact many of the most uncontroversial laws, the whole nation suffers. This is true today, and it will be true in 2012  ̶  no matter who controls the Senate. It is essential that the American people have a government that will not allow our nation to wither and die from inaction,” Ian Millhiser, a policy analyst with Center for American Progress, said in an e-mailed comment.

Republicans counter Democratic claims by arguing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has created the present climate by preventing GOP senators from offering amendments through the process known as “filling the tree”.

According to Wichterman, Reid has used this tactic whereby he offers every possible amendment, thereby blocking the minority from offering amendments, more than the prior six Senate majority leaders combined.

“Minority rights are extremely important, and compromise is important in terms of making lawmaking a bit more humble,” Wichterman said. “It is a very good thing for the health of our nation.”

Democrats have accused Republicans of hypocrisy for opposing their plans to alter the filibuster, noting the GOP tried to ban filibusters of judicial nominees in 2005.

At the time, many Democrats, including then- Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the current majority whip, warned doing so would stab at the heart of Senate traditions protecting the rights of the minority.

Wichterman, who played an important role behind the scenes during the 2005 filibuster debate, sees a sharp distinction between what the Republican leadership tried doing and what the Democrats are proposing.

“Prior to 2003 we never had a filibuster of a judicial nominee resulting in the nominee with majority support not getting through,” Wichterman said. “But the Democrats under Sen. Tom Daschle had upended Senate tradition and decided that we will now filibuster judges.

“The Republicans responded by trying to restore Senate traditions to not being able to filibuster judges.”

The Democrats, by contrast, are trying to restrict filibustering across the board, he said.

Action likely will be postponed until Jan. 25 when the Senate returns from recess, but it remains to be seen if Reid will have the votes to change the rule.