Mar 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

A "nuclear winter" foretold

Illustration of a figure in a hazmat suit wearing a tie and holding a briefcase and a folder full of papers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Senate operating in the "nuclear winter" Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promises if the filibuster is eliminated is one in which lawmakers face incessant roll calls and other inconveniences turning their comfortable lives into a living hell.

Why it matters: In employing apocalyptic language to warn about a "scorched-earth" response, the Kentucky Republican is trying to scare Democrats away from the tool they're considering to break through the GOP's own political obstinance.

Some tools at McConnell's disposal:

  • Demanding roll call votes on procedural points of order, forcing Democratic senators and Vice President Kamala Harris — the tie-breaking 51st vote — to live on standby at the Capitol.
  • Unnecessary quorum calls, pausing Senate business while the secretary issues a roll call vote to ensure all 100 senators are present on the floor. It only takes one member to call for it.
  • Rotating Republicans onto the floor for hours-long debate about motions and bills — reminiscent of the technique illustrated in the 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
  • Asking Senate secretaries to read through lengthy bills and amendments, similar to what Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) did before a vote on President Biden's coronavirus relief package — which took more than 10 hours.
  • Senate GOP aides say they could introduce 2,000-page substitute amendments to make the process particularly tedious.

Senate aides say McConnell would be very strategic about how he and other Republicans fiddle with the rules, and they insist he isn't bluffing.

  • They point to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by columnist Kim Strassel, saying it was "spot on" in detailing the pain McConnell could inflict if Democrats go down this route.

Strassel wrote:

  • "The Senate convenes. Quorum call. The presiding officer asks for consent to forgo reading yesterday’s journal. Republicans object. Roll call vote. The officer asks for consent to speed through 'morning business.' Republicans object."
  • "Democrats move to get on an issue. Point of order. Roll-call vote. Quorum call. Republicans object to the motion. Roll-call vote. A speech. Quorum call. Etc., and so on, until adjournment."

The other side: Democrats insist they've heard it before, and their supporters are sick of McConnell's rhetoric — especially after he changed the filibuster rule to let President Trump fill three Supreme Court seats.

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), speaking last week on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," dismissed McConnell’s talk as a “blustery threat."
  • “We're not going to be deterred. We're going to go forward because we know the American people demand, need, want bold change. And we're going to do it. Mitch McConnell can do all the threatening and bluster he wants. It's not going to stop us,” Schumer said.

Senate Democratic aides also characterized these tactics as acts of futility that would ultimately delay the inevitable.

  • Regardless of the arduous mechanisms the GOP could implement, they say, if Democrats were to eliminate the filibuster, they’ll be able to enact far more of their agenda.
  • They'd also be very painful for Republicans, who would need to spend far more time in the Capitol than they do now when they’d rather be back in their districts.
  • “In the end, this would be obstruction for the sake of obstruction,” one senior Democratic aide said.

The backdrop: Democrats are a long way off from reforming the filibuster, let alone eliminating it, and it’s unlikely they’ll get the votes to do so in the current Senate given two moderates who have pledged to keep it.

  • But McConnell has said he's also willing to use these tools if Democrats find other ways — such as using the budget reconciliation process — to leave the GOP out of key decisions.
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