As reports circulate about Senate Republicans struggling with where to start and whether they can finish an effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, and as everyone discusses the potential impact that struggle could have on the rest of the GOP agenda, the president of the United States stepped in this morning via Twitter with a modest proposal:
It is always perilous to assume that Donald Trump knows what he’s talking about when it comes to arcane matters like the Senate rules or the budget process. He is, after all, a very busy man. But he sure seems to be urging the Senate to “nuke” the legislative filibuster once and for all and operate on a majority-vote basis just like the House does, aside from the supermajority requirements that are in the Constitution itself (e.g., for impeachment, treaty ratification, constitutional amendments, and overriding presidential vetoes).
This is not an entirely new idea from Trump. Just a month ago he said something very similar on Twitter:
A day earlier in an interview he expanded on this impulse:
You look at the rules of the Senate, even the rules of the House — but the rules of the Senate and some of the things you have to go through, it’s — it’s really a bad thing for the country, in my opinion. They’re archaic rules. And maybe at some point we’re going to have to take those rules on, because, for the good of the nation, things are going to have to be different. You can’t go through a process like this. It’s not fair. It forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, you’re really forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules.
But the senator who would have to initiate and consummate this momentous rule change, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, reacted very negatively to the idea of eliminating the last remaining form of the filibuster. And even if he wanted to move in that direction, it is not at all clear his caucus would follow: In April, after Senate Republicans “nuked” the right to filibuster Supreme Court nominations, 28 of them joined 33 Democratic colleagues in signing a letter opposing changes to the legislative filibuster.
It is possible Trump is just expressing his frustration at the GOP’s lack of legislative progress this year, or is even preparing to blame it on a Washington “swamp” that includes Senate traditions.
Or he could wind up joining his old frenemy Ted Cruz in proposing something a bit less than the formal abolition of the legislative filibuster: a coup whereby any rulings by the Senate parliamentarian on the health-care bill’s (or later, the tax bill’s) lack of compliance with the budget rules (e.g., inclusion of items like changes in Obamacare regulations that aren’t budget-germane) endangering its passage by a simple majority vote, would simply be overruled by the chair. Indeed, Trump could go a long way to making that happen by ordering his vice-president to show up, assume the chair, and blow the budget rules out of the water.
A Senate majority could overrule the chair, and there may be legal limits to how far Pence or anyone else could go in ignoring the budget rules since they are based on law, not just the parliamentarian’s interpretations of the law. But it’s an option that might break the Senate logjam by creating a loophole in the budget rules large enough to drive a health-care and tax bill through, preserving Republican-only power over their contents. It would set a troubling precedent almost as revolutionary as abolishing the right to filibuster altogether. But it could sure speed things up.
This all sounds far too Machiavellian and politically treacherous to be a likely interpretation of Trump’s frustrated tweets. But he could be guided toward this “solution” if Senate Republicans buy it. Otherwise, he may just have to stay angry.