President Donald Trump has made clear his admiration for autocrats.
From Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Saudi royal family, the president has had more kind words for such leaders and governments than for our democratic European allies.
It should be no surprise that when Donald Trump looks at the U.S. Senate, he sees a body he wants out of his way. When he observes the Senate rules which normally make it necessary to assemble a bipartisan 60 votes to get matter of importance adopted, he sees only an obstacle to his agenda. He wants that obstacle dismantled.
Once again, last week, he began demanding that the Senate distort its rules in order to make it possible for Trump’s legislative proposals to slip through the Congress supported only by his own party (and he doesn’t have much patience for them either.)
On May 30, Trump tweeted:
"The U.S. Senate should switch to 51 votes, immediately, and get Healthcare and TAX CUTS approved, fast and easy. Dems would do it, no doubt!"
Of course, he got it wrong, Congress intends to use the budget reconciliation process which requires only a simple majority (which could be fewer than 51 votes if not all senators are present).
Nevertheless, his message was delivered. President Trump wants the Senate to twist its rules and precedents in order to make it easier for him to accomplish what he wants.
Weeks earlier, Trump had tweeted:
"Either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good "shutdown" in September to fix mess!"
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the president pro tempore of the Senate replied, “[Trump] and I differ on that because without the filibuster this country would've been gone a long time ago… I'm gonna talk to him about it. I'll get him back on line."
It’s not clear that anyone has been successful in getting the president back on track.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) asked at his weekly press conference about the Trump demand told reporters, “That will not happen… There is an overwhelming majority on a bipartisan basis not interested in changing the way the Senate operates on the legislative calendar."
And, in April, 61 senators, representing both parties, wrote to the leadership, opposing further change to the filibuster.
Worried that the use of the nuclear option to block filibusters on presidential nominations would lead to pressures to eliminate the filibuster on legislative matters, they declared, “We are mindful of the unique role the Senate plays in the legislative process, and we are steadfastly committed to ensuring that this great American institution continues to serve as the world's greatest deliberative body.”
They expressed opposition to “any effort to curtail the existing rights and prerogatives of Senators to engage in full robust and extended debate…” and their dedication to “…preserv[ing] existing rules, practices, and traditions as they pertain to the right of Members to engage in extended debate on legislation before the United States Senate…”President Trump frequently reverses course on important issues. So, it may not be surprising that in November, 2013, the day after the Democrats were the first to use the nuclear option, eliminating the filibuster on some presidential nominations, Trump tweeted:
"Thomas Jefferson wrote the Senate filibuster rule. Harry Reid & Obama killed it yesterday. Rule was in effect for over 200 years."
He was wrong about Jefferson, but he was right then about the rule. The Democrats used a parliamentary gimmick and set the Senate on the slippery slope it now struggles with.
No one who believes that the privileges of legislative minorities, which are protected in the Senate, foster negotiation and compromise should rest easy.
As the Trump term proceeds, it is likely that confrontations between the Democratic Senate minority and the president will arise on big issues. It could be on lifting the debt ceiling or appropriations in the fall. Trump, rousing his base will likely create great pressure on the Republicans to twist the rules and overturn the legislative filibuster. We can only hope that Majority Leader McConnell will hold his ground.
Former Vice President Aaron Burr, in 1805, in his farewell address to the Senate issued a warning which seems prescient given the current political circumstances: “[The Senate] is a sanctuary; a citadel of law and order, and of liberty—it is here in this exalted refuge—here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political frenzy and the silent arts of corruption. And if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnesses on this floor.”
The Senate has stood before as the defender of American values and may be called upon to do so once again.
Richard A. Arenberg worked for Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), Carl Levin(D-Mich.) and Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) for 34 years and is co-author of the award-winning "Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate." He is a visiting lecturer of political science, and international and public affairs, at Brown University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter@richarenberg.