Democrats, led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), yesterday used the unique rules of the Senate to launch a filibuster demanding legislation to require universal background checks for gun sales and to prevent people listed on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms.
Murphy declared that he would "remain on this floor until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together." A number of senators, including Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others joined Murphy on the Senate floor in support of the effort.
The Senate is considering the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill. The majority Republicans have been denying Democrats a vote on the gun amendments.
Those who believe that the passage of commonsense gun legislation is made clearer than ever by the tragic events in Orlando, Florida are outraged by the failure of Congress to act. But even for those who believe the focus on guns is misguided, why prevent the debate and why not put members of the Senate on record?
The dramatic action on the Senate floor dramatizes the virtue of the Senate's historic protection of minority rights through unlimited debate. The filibuster provides senators the opportunity to deliberate on the issue and creates pressure on the majority to permit a vote.
This is in sharp contrast to the House of Representatives, where the majority rules with an iron grip. Just Tuesday, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of the Democratic leadership, sought recognition to raise the gun issue. Under the House rules, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was able to gavel Clyburn down.
The right to filibuster, in recent years, has been threatened by the so-called "nuclear option," a parliamentary slight-of-hand that was used to eliminate the filibuster on most judicial nominations in 2013. It is not unusual for the majority party to be frustrated by the exercise of the filibuster by the minority.
Former Democratic Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), an expert on the Senate's rules, frequently defended the filibuster. He argued:
"The filibuster has become a target for rebuke in this efficiency-obsessed age in which we live. ... It does, however, take more than a little thought to understand the true purpose of the tactic known as filibustering and to appreciate its historic importance in protecting the viewpoint of the minority. ... In many ways, the filibuster is the single most important device ever employed to ensure that the Senate remains truly the unique protector of the rights of the people that it has been throughout our history."
Perhaps the most effective majority leader in Senate history, Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), went even further. He declared:
"If I should have the opportunity to send into the countries behind the iron curtain one freedom and only one, I know what my choice would be. I would send to those nations the right of unlimited debate in their legislative chambers. ... If we now, in the haste and irritation, shut off this freedom, we shall be cutting off the most vital safeguard which minorities possess against the tyranny of momentary majorities."
The Democrats' filibuster successfully created a vigorous airing of the gun issue and it appears to has earned the Democrats the vote on gun legislation that they seek.
Hopefully, whichever party gains the majority in the 2016 elections will remember this role and will resist the temptation to slip further down the slippery slope toward elimination of the filibuster. We have seen yesterday and today a clear demonstration of its historic value.