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Heading for a Filibuster Christmas?

As the Senate returns after Labor Day from its August recess, there is little sign that the “Filibuster Summer” will not become the ‘Filibuster Autumn” and perhaps even the “Filibuster Christmas.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) adopted the Filibuster Summer label when Democrats made it clear they would use the filibuster to prevent the Senate from considering any of the annual appropriations bills required to fund the government unless and until the Republicans came to negotiate the budget. Democrats last June quickly put teeth in that threat by filibustering the defense appropriations bill and prevailing on the cloture vote attempt at ending that filibuster.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) suggestedthat McConnell “walk into his office, his little bathroom there, look in the mirror, because over that mirror, he should be able to see the words 'hypocrisy and cynicism…'” He suggested that it was the Republicans who are responsible for the summer’s gridlock because they continue to refuse to meet the Democrats at the negotiating table.

Now the summer is ending. Will the logjam break up? There’s little chance of that. On the horizon is a pile-up of contentious issues each with its own filibuster possibilities.

The new fiscal year begins on October 1. If the appropriations impasse is not resolved by then, we face another government shutdown. Neither party wants that, but that fact alone won’t prevent it from happening.

Most expect the shutdown to be avoided by a temporary funding measure known as a “continuing resolution.” McConnell has repeatedly said , “We’re not doing government shutdowns.” But, some members of McConnell’s own caucus, notably led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), are threatening to block any such legislation unless it defunds Planned Parenthood. Cruz recently, in a phone call with thousands of Christian pastors, declared “That is the circumstance in which the vote actually has teeth. That is the circumstance in which Congress would actually cut off funding. Here’s the challenge: The leadership of both parties … want an empty show vote.” Cruz’s level of cooperation with the Senate’s Republican leadership can be seen in the incident last month in which he called McConnell “a liar” on the Senate floor. Other Republican presidential candidates, including front-runner Donald Trump have made clear their support for using the appropriations process as leverage to end the funding.

Of course, defunding Planned Parenthood is a non-starter for Democrats. They would no doubt filibuster any appropriations legislation seeking to do so.

But, the threat to shut down the government is hardly the only filibuster crisis the returning Senate will face. Sometime later this year, probably November or December, Congress will need to lift the $18.1 trillion debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default. Again, neither party wants to see the nation’s first-ever default. However, Congress has fought pitched battles over lifting the debt limit in recent years, voting to either suspend or increase the debt limit a total of seven times since 2010. In 2013, Congress waited until the last possible moment. The last time Congress raised the debt limit, in February 2014, it did so only after overcoming a filibuster by Cruz. Presidential candidate Trump recently said of a debt ceiling showdown, “I would say it’s worth the fight.”

Perhaps the most significant filibuster fight could come on the resolution of disapproval on the Iran deal. Until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that Congress would pass the disapproval resolution forcing President Obama to veto it and that the Congress would then override the veto. Since all of the Senate Republicans are likely to vote for the resolution, sustaining the veto would require 34 Democratic votes. It appears that the president would have sufficient support. But as the number of Senate Democrats supporting the Iran agreement has risen in recent days, the possibility that Democrats could successfully block the disapproval resolution from even reaching the Senate floor seems feasible. Reid has recently said, “I know it’s a long shot, but I hope that it can be done.” To block consideration of the resolution, Democrats would need 41 votes, seven more than to sustain a veto.

The White House is pushing for the filibuster. A member of the Foreign Relations Committee minority, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has explained why: “There’s a cost to the international credibility of the country and this president if a motion of disapproval passes the House and the Senate… There is some harm to the country’s standing if we have to go through the charade of the veto.”

Republican Senator Tom Cotton (Ark.), a leader in the fight to reject the Iran nuclear deal has attacked the filibuster threat, "Harry Reid wants to deny the American people a voice entirely by blocking an up-or-down vote on this terrible deal… He is obstructing because he is scared."

Although I support the Iran agreement, I am struck by the irony of the president hanging his hat on a Senate filibuster. Earlier this year President Obama argued that the use of the filibuster in the Senate “almost ensures greater gridlock and less clarity in terms of the positions of the parties.” He added, “There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires it.”

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