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John Thune on the filibuster

Senate GOP promises to preserve the filibuster — even under Trump

Senate Republicans are shouting it from the rooftops: If we win the majority on Election Day, we’ll preserve the filibuster at all costs.

But if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House, are all bets off?

Trump mercilessly begged Senate Republicans to gut the filibuster when he was president — “at least 30 times” by Sen. James Lankford’s (R-Okla.) count.

Trump’s outbursts were borne out of frustration that the 60-vote threshold was blocking key elements of his legislative agenda even when Republicans held the House, Senate and White House during his first two years in office.

And GOP senators acknowledged the inevitably of Trump — if he returns to power, and especially if Republicans control the House as well — nagging them once again to go nuclear.

But Senate Republicans insist they won’t give in.

“The day that Republicans vote to nuke the filibuster is the day I resign from the U.S. Senate,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told us. “That is how strongly I feel about it… We gotta have the courage to stand against [this].”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, who’s running to replace Mitch McConnell as GOP leader, pledged that Republicans won’t blow up the filibuster. The issue has come up during recent closed-door GOP Conference meetings in the context of the upcoming leadership race.

“Our members are committed to preserving it,” Thune said. “As much as we want to work with Trump… we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way and cobble together the types of majorities that enable us to get to the 60-vote threshold.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is running for GOP leader, has made similar statements. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is seeking both reelection and the top Republican leadership spot, has attacked his Democratic opponent, former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, for saying she’d carve out an exception for abortion rights in the filibuster.

But that’s in the minority, of course. Most Democrats we talked to suspect that Republicans would immediately go nuclear when it benefits them, especially under pressure from Trump. After all, congressional Republicans have fallen in line behind Trump on issue after issue, and Trump’s grip on the party has only tightened over time.

Of course, Republican senators have resisted Trump’s filibuster pleas before. But both parties have nuked different elements of the filibuster over time — most notably for judicial nominees — so the concern is real. That’s especially true given the impending exit of two of the chamber’s most ardent defenders of the filibuster.

Two years ago, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) stymied a Democratic effort to weaken the filibuster in order to pass a voting rights measure. Both are retiring at the end of this Congress, and there’s a belief that no matter who wins the Senate majority, the filibuster could be toast under the right circumstances.

Manchin told us he’s confident that Republicans will keep their word and maintain the filibuster, citing their resistance to gutting it when Trump pressured them.

“They did that before — they held strong. So I have more faith that they would,” Manchin said.

Of course, the filibuster doesn’t always stand in the way of partisan legislation. The budget reconciliation process allows the party in control of the Senate to pass certain legislation with a simple majority. Think of the Trump-era tax bill as well as the Inflation Reduction Act from President Joe Biden’s first term.

But budget reconciliation is only applicable here when one party controls the House, Senate and White House.

It’s not just Trump who could complicate Republicans’ filibuster promises. Their party’s voters are already agitating for the nuclear option, too.

Lankford, who kept count of how many times Trump called on Senate Republicans to go nuclear, said this issue was especially challenging for him while negotiating the bipartisan border security deal earlier this year.

Lankford noted that many of his constituents criticized him for even talking to Democrats on border policy. Lankford would respond by noting that border-related legislation can’t pass without bipartisan support, so negotiating with Democrats was unavoidable if senators actually wanted to achieve a result.

That inevitably leads to calls to scrap the filibuster and pass legislation that can win a simple majority — with zero support from members of the minority party. It’s difficult to defend the filibuster when GOP voters see it as the chief obstacle to Trump’s agenda. But Republican senators insist they’ll continue to drive home the message.

“When you’re in the Senate you gotta have 60. That means you gotta sit down like grown-ups and have conversations and figure it out. Some people don’t like that,” Lankford said. “[The filibuster is] something uniquely American to have a place in government where both sides have to be heard.”

— Andrew Desiderio

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