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Should Republicans kill the filibuster?

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To invoke, or not to invoke, the “Reid Rule?” That is the singe most important question facing Senate Republicans.

Simply put, if destroying what is left of the Senate’s tradition of the filibuster would save the country from terrible crises and hardship, almost every senator of both parties would vote to abolish it.

Indeed, all but one of the currently serving Senate Democrats who also served in 2013 voted with their leader to break the filibuster rule by simple majority, thus creating “the Reid Rule” that the rules of the Senate can be modified by a simple majority of the senators present. (West Virginia’s Joe Manchin voted against breaking the filibuster then, along with Carl Levin and Mark Pryor — the former retired, the latter was defeated in November.)

It was the Republicans who first threatened to use the “nuclear option” in the summer of 2005, an action avoided by the compromise cobbled together by the “Gang of 14.” Had the GOP not fallen for the Democrats’ promise of comity, the “Reid Rule” would have been born as the “Frist Rule,” named instead for the majority leader of the Senate in ’05, Bill Frist.

But Frist didn’t pull the trigger and fracture the filibuster. Reid did. Thus Reid will live on in infamy, at least in the eyes of Senate traditionalists.

The filibuster is not part of the Constitution, however, and all that ever preserved it was a bipartisan sense of the necessity of maintaining a tradition that honored the role of the minority in a long-enduring Republic. Now with the president embarked on an unconstitutional abdication of his oath to faithfully execute the laws, along with his adventures with Cuba and Iran that have many in his own party alarmed, the question is squarely presented: Does the near term of the Republic’s future outweigh the long term interests of the Senate?

In the past week I have heard from two former senators and one theologian on this key debate. Both senators are greatly respected for their intellects and integrity — former Colorado Sen. Bill Armstrong and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent — but they differ on the subject of whether the Mitch McConnell-led Republicans ought to clear away what is left of the wreckage of the filibuster by invoking the Reid Rule to end filibusters on legislative matters as well as nominations. The theologian, Phoenix Seminary’s Wayne Grudem, is known as the country’s pre-eminent systematic theologian and a prolific and thoughtful political essayist as well.

Talent and Grudem both pointed out that so much damage has been done by the president and his allies in Congress that the repair job will require passing laws, not merely halting the passage of additional ill-conceived statutes, and Grudem detailed a long list of crucially necessary reforms left for dead because of the filibuster, a list that grows longer every week. Much needs to be repealed and righted, and that won’t happen even with a Republican president and GOP Congressional majorities in 2017 if at least 41 Democrats remain in the Senate. This is an argument built on the urgency of the times and the scale of our problems at home and abroad.

Armstrong, now the president of Colorado Christian College, argues still for the long term interest of stability and comity, but recognizes as well that Republicans risk being patsies if, when the Democrats next return to the majority with a Democratic president, they simply invoke the Reid Rule again to jam through more big government laws.

The Armstrong suggestion: The GOP Senate leadership ought to require as a condition of laying down the Reid Rule now a written pledge — a solemn oath — signed by individual Democrats, that they will honor the legislative filibuster for the balance of their careers. There can be no repairing the damage the precedent of the Reid Rule over the very long term, but there can be begun a new tradition of personal commitments to comity that might last as long as the stigma of oath-breaking backed it up.

Certainly the GOP ought to ask for such a written commitment from every currently serving Democrat. If some critical mass of signed commitments is not forthcoming, the GOP could break the remains of the filibuster using the Reid Rule assured that they were not the radicals — Harry Reid owns that title — but rather realists quicker to the draw in a fight with politicos who care not a whit about the long term but only their short term social engineering goals.


This column was originally posted on


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