WASHINGTON — In case you were tuning out the news coming out of Capitol Hill this week, senators voted yesterday to change the chamber’s rules in order to allow for easier confirmations of Supreme Court nominees. It now takes 51 votes to greenlight a high court pick instead of 60 — matching a rules change Democrats made in 2013 for Cabinet and other judicial nominees.
Yesterday’s vote was a historic, if not grim, moment. Even Republicans who voted in favor of it said they were sickened they had to make a fundamental change to the Senate’s institutional fiber in order to override a Democratic filibuster and confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. (They said the move was still worth it, though.)
Now that the Senate has crossed that particular rubicon, there have been questions raised about whether lawmakers would take things a step forward and do the same for legislation. Under current rules, a minority of at least 40 senators can block bills they don’t like.
It’s one of the Senate’s most unique and powerful features. It’s also one of its most maddening. Frustrated that a unified Congress rebuffed one of the biggest items on his agenda — health care — President Donald Trump has urged Senate leaders to make the change in order to push more of his legislative agenda through Congress.
Institutionalists have dismissed the requests, arguing that it would forever alter the Senate and the Founding Fathers’ vision of it as the country’s legislative cooling saucer.
Sen. David Perdue, for one, says he’s open to reexamining the Senate rules for legislation given how gridlocked Capitol Hill has become in recent years.
“I think we’ve got to look at the functionality of the Senate,” Perdue said in an interview Friday. “If we can’t begin to protect Americans from too many regulations and too many legislative moves but yet still have the ability to pass law then we’ve got to look at anything that’s keeping us from doing that.”
Perdue, who has advocated for congressional term limits, blamed the rise of “career politicians,” the gerrymandering of House congressional districts and the country’s increasing political polarization as contributing factors to the Senate gridlock.
He said he’s been researching the history of the Senate and its rules. His main takeaway is that the body has been willing to reexamine its customs over the years when things stopped working efficiently, including the filibuster. He said lawmakers should do the same now.
The legislative filibuster “is something we have to continue to look at, just as every Senate has since the beginning of our country, just to make sure the Senate keeps its functionality,” he said.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think the founders ever meant the rules to allow anybody the ability to totally shut down the United States Senate,” Perdue added.
Senate Republican leaders so far have been resistant to the proposal.
“There’s not a single senator in the majority who thinks we ought to change the legislative filibuster,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Tuesday. “We all understand that’s what makes the Senate the Senate.”
Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has also spoken against making such a change.
“If we move forward as a body that’s a rubber stamp of the House, we’ll never be the United States of America our Founding Fathers intended us to be,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor yesterday.