November 2, 2013

Our View: Senate continues filibuster ‘shutdown’

Two back-to-back procedural blocks of nominees – one in which Susan Collins participated – show where the system needs fixing.

The government shutdown ended last month, but the stealth shutdown is still going.

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Republican senators used procedural rules Thursday to block debate on an Obama administration nominee for a judgeship, as well as for a nominee to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

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Republican senators used procedural rules Thursday to block debate on two nominees, one each from the executive and judicial branches of government. Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., was denied a vote on his nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and Patricia Millett’s nomination was blocked from consideration for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit.

We thank Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins for voting to allow the Millett nomination to go through, even though her vote did not help the Democrats reach the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster. It was the right thing to do.

But we are disappointed that Collins did not do the same for the Watt nomination, choosing instead to join in a partisan obstruction campaign.

Let’s be clear: These were not votes on the merits of these nominees. Both have excellent qualifications and should not be controversial. These were procedural votes on whether the Senate should be allowed to vote on the nominations. Senate Republicans used the rules to interfere with operation of the executive and judicial branches of government, just as tea party Republicans used their procedural clout to shut the government down in October.

At the beginning of the year, Senate Democrats considered unilaterally changing the filibuster rule, which had been misused in historic frequency by Republicans in the last Congress. Instead, leaders from both parties reached an agreement on rules that they said would make the filibuster less common, and they have been.

But back-to-back votes this week show that those reforms were not enough.

The absurdity of the situation was illustrated by John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader. He said he doubted that Democrats would change the rules, because someday Republicans could elect a president and take control of the Senate. “Then we could confirm another (Antonin) Scalia, another (Clarence) Thomas with 51 votes.”

Cornyn was referring to the two most conservative members of the Supreme Court, but he seems to have forgotten one important fact: Both justices were confirmed. Neither nomination was blocked by process – not Scalia’s in 1986, when the Democrats were in the minority, and not Thomas’ in 1991, when they held the majority.

That’s how things used to be done, and if the only way for that normal process to return is a rule change, the Democrats should work to enact one.

In the meantime, Collins should be voting to break these filibusters, not siding with the forces of obstruction.

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