Defund sanctuary cities. Defund Planned Parenthood. Build the wall. These are just some of things Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promises to do when he takes back control of the Senate — that is, if Democrats dare to strike down the filibuster.
It’s a great to-do list, the kind of things the conservative base elects Republicans every few years to do. When President Donald Trump took office in 2017 and the GOP controlled both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, though, none of it happened. Why not?
It’s true that although Democrats had already begun loudly promising to do away with the filibuster (a parliamentary tactic to protect the minority that the left, of course, calls “racist”), it was still in place during those Republican majorities. But McConnell didn’t even really try to accomplish any of the above. He didn’t even make a stink about it. While the House, a majority-ruled chamber, passed a litany of conservative legislation, McConnell barely sniffed, leaving acts to languish with neither fight nor even feint.
Take legislation to defund “sanctuary cities” — cities that have decided to shield violent and criminal illegal immigrants from deportation. The House passed the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act in June 2017, with even then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan going to bat for it. So what did McConnell do? He didn’t do anything.
Now, in the Senate, you need 60 votes to bring a bill to the floor without risking that old filibuster, where opposing senators are allowed to debate an issue for as long as they can stand. Every Democratic senator coming twice to the floor to rail against the terrible GOP would be a tough thing to overcome, right?
Pulling the grand 2017 filibuster off, however, would have been a little more difficult than it sounds. To start, Democrats would have had to tackle the simple logistics of the matter: McConnell’s 115th Senate was literally the oldest in American history. The average — average — age was nearly 62, with twice as many octogenarians as there had ever been before in Senate history. Which among them would be filibustering? How many of the 75-year-olds would stand for 12 or more hours?
Sure, but that still left a few young bucks. And whether you’re Sen. Ted Cruz or Sen. Elizabeth “She Persisted” Warren, Senate shenanigans have a habit of creating folk heroes. But remember what Democrats would have been fighting against here: a bill to literally protect American citizens from violent criminals who should not even be in this country at all. How would that play during the hours or days or even weeks of a concentrated filibuster effort? Who was willing to stand and rail against it? New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, sure. California’s Kamala Harris, who was then still a senator, wouldn’t have missed the party. But was West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin going to come down to fight on this one? No. No, he was not.
And do you know who wouldn’t have minded whether or not Manchin, for example, stayed upstairs during that fight? The next West Virginian thinking about challenging the septuagenarian politician for his seat. Booker and Harris, he knows, will give him all the material he needs for a few good TV ads.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, defunding cities that have abandoned their most vulnerable citizens in favor of illegal criminals was just too much heat for Republicans. How about Kate’s Law, the bill named for Kate Steinle, a beautiful 32-year-old woman gunned down in broad daylight as she walked with her father along a pier in California. Her killer, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, had been deported five times before he killed Kate.
Putting aside weak-kneed House Republicans who, before passing it, stripped the law of its teeth — mandatory minimum sentencing for those deported criminals who return — McConnell didn’t even bring it up for a vote. Why not? Seriously, Republicans: Explain with a straight face how all the Senate’s young progressive up-and-comers benefit nationally from filibustering Kate Steinle.
The right loves to complain that the left is able to pass its agenda by telling real human stories and using emotion while the right struggles to fit all its statistics onto a bumper sticker, but what about this one? Do you know what you get when Harris comes down to filibuster Kate’s Law? In all chances, you get no Vice President Harris.
And yes, yes, these fights would take time; time away from judges, from tax reform — important initiatives, even if they do repeatedly seem to help corporations more often than the middle- and working-class voters who elect Republicans. But when McConnell cares about something — actually cares about it — we see how quickly his tune changes.
Mitch McConnell, for example, cares about war in the Middle East. He really, really likes it. So at the top of 2019, when Democrats filibustered his Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, he came down on them like a Baghdad sandstorm. And then, when it took 24 days and four cloture votes to ram it down Democrats’ throats, he even gave a speech bragging about the fight. It was a fight he wanted.
“There are only two rules in the U.S. Senate — exhaustion and unanimous consent,” former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott once observed. “And the second only applies when the first has been reached.”
Which brings us to the real reason we don’t see defunding for sanctuary cities, broadsides on the abortion machine, or a finished wall: The majority of senior Republicans don’t care about those issues, don’t want to fight on those issues, and as soon as election-time is over, would prefer to see them in the rear-view mirror. Those fights spook the Chamber of Commerce. Lockheed doesn’t benefit from them.
There are some issues — the wall, probably, and abortion — where Democrats will fight with everything they’ve got. They’ll wear pink sneakers, raise money, invoke Christian civil rights leaders who likely wouldn’t have anything to do with their cause, stage cry-ins. They will be hard fights. Then again, even the Democrats seem to be learning a few of those fights are major losers for them. Now let’s see if the Republicans ever realize the issues they win on are winners after they’re elected.