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Harry Reid Should Kill the Filibuster, for Real This Time

Democrats have all the leverage. Why won't they use it?

Up until three weeks ago, Senate Republicans had gone out of their way to block Obama’s highest-profile executive-branch nominees, typically for no other reason than that the president had selected them. The GOP finally backed down after Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to do away with the filibuster for such appointments, and seven nominees promptly sailed through the Senate. But the victory was fleeting. Last week, Republicans simply shifted their fight from the executive to the judicial branch, vowing to deny an up-or-down vote on all three of Obama’s picks for the critical DC court of appeals. 

As before, Republican senators insisted that Democrats would be crazy to junk the filibuster in response to such obstruction, arguing that Democrats would regret the move once they were reacquainted with life in the minority. But this time Republicans were even more emboldened, dismissing any hint of Democratic hardball as a bluff. “Unless Democrats are prepared to say they’ll never filibuster a federal judge or never filibuster a cabinet person,” Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions told Talking Points Memo, “I don’t think that their threat should be given much weight.”

Sadly, Sessions may be right. Last month’s deal over Obama’s nominees came after a meeting among 98 senators in which, according to The New York Times, Democrats conceded “that their headlong drive to alter the rules may have been overly aggressive.” Many Senate Democrats seem genuinely alarmed by the idea of a filibuster-less existence should they lose their fragile majority.

But these fears are way overblown. Democrats would be in a stronger position if they went ahead and abolished the filibuster—not just for cabinet appointees and judges, but for legislation, too. That should strike fear in the hearts of Republicans and, at the very least, ensure that Democrats get their way when the GOP obstructs their nominees.

The basic reason for the Democratic advantage is that they’re likely to win the presidency a lot more often than Republicans over the next 20 to 30 years. The demographics are just relentlessly skewed against the GOP. As my colleague Nate Cohn has documented exhaustively, the growth of minority groups—especially Hispanics—means that the 2016 electorate will be as diverse as the 2012 electorate even if turnout among these groups drops back to its 2004 levels (that is, before the nation’s first black major-party nominee). And the trend lines only get worse for the GOP after 2016.

Republicans could theoretically make up for the growing minority presence by winning a larger percentage of the white vote. But, as Nate points out, the GOP would have to win white voters at historically unprecedented rates to pull this off (that is, unprecedented even for the GOP). And it would have to do this at a time when the white electorate is also drifting leftward—young white voters have broken heavily Democratic in recent presidential elections. 

Alternatively, the GOP could always adjust its policy positions to win over minority voters and more moderate whites. But, at least for the next decade or so, this looks even more hopeless. The same structural advantage that gives Republicans a near stranglehold over the House—the median district tilts Republican by three percentage points—means that the typical House GOPer considers it a bigger challenge to win a primary than a general election. This makes these members far more interested in appealing to their base than rebranding their party nationally.

The upshot is that even if Democrats were to kill the filibuster and then lose control of the Senate—which they no doubt will over the next 20 years, perhaps for long stretches—they would generally retain veto power over policies they don’t like by virtue of their grip on the White House. Conversely, Democrats wouldn’t have to worry as much about being unable to block nominees and policies under a Republican president, for the simple reason that there won’t be many Republican presidents around to propose them.

Of course, Republicans will clearly win the presidency some time during the next generation—there are always economic downturns and foreign policy failures to contend with, not to mention lousy candidates and campaigns, all of which affect elections. And you have to believe the GOP will adjust at some point, even if it takes more than a decade. The point is just that, if you’re predicting who benefits from a filibuster-less world based on where we sit today, the odds favor Democrats because of the odds they’ll generally control the presidency.

More to the point, Democrats don’t even have to do away with the filibuster to exploit this advantage. The very fact that eliminating the filibuster is likely to benefit Democrats should strengthen their hand in any confrontation with Republicans over nominees and legislation—like, say, Obama’s three DC appeals court candidates. That’s because, once Democrats recognize that killing the filibuster is in their interest, they should become much more willing to do it, knowing full well that they can live with the consequences. Explaining this publicly would, in turn, make their threat much more credible and focus the minds of Republicans, who would face a world in which they’re both unlikely to control the White House very often and are deprived of their chief tool of obstruction.1

Suffice it to say, it's hard to believe they're eager for this fate. Jeff Sessions can blather on all he wants about idle bluffing. But it’s Democrats who hold the cards.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber 

  1. Of course, I could be wrong about the coming Democratic dominance of presidential politics. But the point is that it doesn't actually matter whether I'm right or wrong. As long as it appears as though Democrats are going to dominate presidential politics for the foreseeable future, which the demographic trends suggest they are (something even Republican elites are pretty worried about), then Republicans should be much more worried about a filibuster-less world than Democrats, and therefore willing to give more ground to preserve the filibuster.