Democrats Force ‘Real’ Filibuster on Iraq

Senate Democrats have decided to force Republicans to actually debate non-stop if they want to kill a bill that would force withdrawal from Iraq.

Senate Democrats refused to flinch Tuesday as the chamber moved toward a rare, all-night session of debate on legislation to bring troops home this fall. They called for sleeping cots to be rolled into a room off the Senate floor and told members to prepare for repeated votes throughout the evening. Senators even left open the possibility of dispatching the sergeant at arms to summon colleagues from their homes to the floor if lawmakers ignored the debate.


The goal of the planned marathon debate was to test the patience of Republicans, who have threatened to filibuster the bill. So far, the GOP leadership has been successful at blocking anti-war legislation because Democrats don’t have the 60 votes to cut off what would become an endless debate on the war. After months of threatened filibuster, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said it was “time for a taste of the real thing.”

Republicans dismissed the maneuver as political theater and said the Senate should vote forgo the debate and vote immediately on whether to advance the measure. Whether the vote comes Tuesday or Wednesday, the proposal is expected to gain a majority of senators, but not reach the 60-vote threshold.


The legislation, proposed by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., would order troops to start leaving in 120 days and complete the pullout by April 30, 2008. Under the bill, an unspecified number of troops could remain behind to fight terrorists, protect U.S. assets and train Iraqi security forces.

While this is indeed an absurd bit of political theater, it strikes me as very worthwhile in this case.

I’m not a big fan of the filibuster as it has evolved in recent years. The ability of a vehement and sizable minority to stop legislation is extra-constitutional but nonetheless a longstanding tradition and a means of preventing major policy swings being shoved down our throats on thin consensus. Unfortunately, two things have undermined the practice’s legitimacy: The increasing use of the filibuster for relatively trivial matters, including votes on presidential nominees, and the doing away with the need to actually filibuster to kill the bill; a mere threat of a filibuster generally suffices. Indeed, the latter has contributed to the former.

It’s good, too, to occasionally remind ourselves that the minority doesn’t have an inherent right to veto legislation. Rather, the filibuster is a byproduct of the Senate tradition of unlimited debate. Why not, then, force those who want to kill measures supported by the minority to actually pull a Mr. Smith and lose a night’s sleep?

This particular bill is the perfect vehicle for this, too. Certainly, there’s no more important matter of public debate than whether the nation is committed to continuing a war.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Haven’t the Republicans heard of ‘tag-team’? It’s not like there’s only a half-dozen of them after all…

  2. jeff b says:

    The point is they will actually need to go on the record as being against a vote on the Iraq issues. The fakers who want to have it both ways, by publicly saying they oppose Bush’s policies while working to perpetuate the same policies, will have their own hypocrisy exposed.

  3. Wayne says:

    “The point is they will actually need to go on the record as being against a vote on the Iraq issues”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. The overnight session won’t force a vote on the amendments. They just need to continue the debate or show a lack of a quorum. No different from any other day session. Also the Republicans won’t be force into limited speech since there will unlikely be a agreement between the minority and majority parties as is the case in most sessions.

    Hopefully the Republicans will use this opportunity to bash the Dems on Senate floor.

  4. jeff b says:

    The quorum thing appears to be incorrect. Check Talking Points Memo for an analysis of the Senate rules on quorum.

    Anyway the whole point of this exercise is to make the minority back up their threats of endless debate. Instead of threatening filibuster they are going to have to actually filibuster, which is a substantial difference. And when the votes for cloture come around, the self-styled waverers of the minority party, who are claiming in television interviews that they oppose Bush’s policies in Iraq, will need to finally put their vote where their mouths are. If they truly oppose Bush’s policies then they will have to vote for cloture and allow the full body to vote on the measures.

    It has been slightly ridiculous that the majority has allowed certain members of the minority to distance themselves from Bush without forcing them to actually put it in writing.