Mitch McConnell Won’t Eliminate The Legislative Filibuster If The GOP Takes The Senate

Preserving the filibuster.

Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell says that, if he become Senate Majority Leader in the new Congress, he will keep in place the ability of the minority to filibuster legislation:

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Thursday that if he were to emerge as majority leader following this fall’s elections, he’d prefer to keep in place the minority party’s ability to filibuster legislation.

“I do not favor turning the Senate into a majoritarian institution, even though we would probably have some short-term advantage to doing it,” McConnell said during an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

While he said he thought Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had done a “lot of damage” by using parliamentary procedure to enable some judicial and executive nominees to move through the chamber with 50 votes, he suggested that he had no plans to try to undo that change. He even left the door open to further changing the rules so they would apply to more nominees.

“That precedent will always be there. It is hard to un-ring a bell and I think it was very damaging to the institution,” said McConnell.

But in stopping short of endorsing filibuster reform for actual legislation, McConnell laid down a marker for how he would run the chamber that could end up upsetting his own members. Should, for example, Republicans emerge from November with a slim Senate majority, there will be a number of legislative items — including, potentially, the repeal of Obamacare — on which he will need 60 votes to end debate.

In his speech, McConnell cast his position as one of reverence for institutional history. The Senate, he said on several occasions, was designed as a place of legislative comity and deliberation. He placed the blame for changes to that culture at Reid’s feet, citing his unwillingness to allow Republican amendments to be considered. (Reid’s office has countered that the amendments in question are often poison pills, while noting that McConnell has spearheaded a historic number of filibusters).

The prospect that the GOP might move to even further restrict the filibuster should it regain control of the Senate, or at least if it did both that and regained the White House in 2016, is an idea that has been circulating for some time now. Some Democratic Senators who opposed the proposals by Jeff Merkley and other Senators to reform the filibuster as well as the changes that Harry Reid rammed through the Senate in November raised the possibility as a warning to their fellow Democrats as a warning about the precedent they were setting by unilaterally altering one of the Senate’s core protections of minority rights and privileges. Indeed, some Republican Senators hinted at the possibility themselves in their own floor speeches regarding the idea of filibuster reform, although it was unclear if they were expressing an desire to actually accomplish this goal or just warning the opposing party of what might happen in the future. At the moment at least, McConnell seems to be downplaying those fears, although one suspects that if he, or if he loses his re-election bid his likely successor John Cornyn, does become Majority Leader he would probably find the threat of pushing through such reform to be useful in keeping the minority in line in the same manner that Harry Reid has attempted to do over the years.

In reality, of course, McConnell’s statements about future plans for filibuster reform are merely a recognition of political reality. First, just as Democratic efforts at filibuster reform faced resistance from Senate veterans well aware of what nuking the filibuster would mean if and when the Democratic Party was in the minority, Republican Senators are likely to be similarly resistant to radical change of the filibuster rules. Some of the “young turks” in the GOP Caucus such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee might be more gung-ho about the idea, but there are likely to be even more Republican Senators reluctant to scrap the legislative filibuster than there were Democrats. Second, even if the GOP does regain control of the Senate in 2015, that control could very well be short-lived. In 2016, the Republicans who won office in the 2010 re-election. This will include people like Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Mark Kirk in Illinois, and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. Just as Democratic Senators are vulnerable in red states this year, there will be a number of Republican Senators in blue states who will be vulnerable. Additionally, if they run for President Senators like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul may not be on the ballot for re-election, thus creating the possibility of Democratic pickups in Florida and Kentucky. Indeed, Sean Trende noted in January that the odds of a GOP takeover being short-lived were quite high. Given that, it’s unlikely that the GOP will take any steps to mess with the filibuster rule in the next Congress. If they manage to hold on to control in the 2016 elections, then perhaps we might see filibuster reform in 2017 or beyond. But not before then.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Just Me says:

    I don’t think it is going to matter. GOP will probably pick up seats but they aren’t going to take over the senate. I just don’t see them winning enough races to do so.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    Doug, do you seriously believe this or are you just carrying water? Who the heck cares what McConnell says on the filibuster? He’s broken every deal he’s made about it going back years.

  3. Tillman says:

    unilaterally altering one of the Senate’s core protections of minority rights and privileges.

    The core protection of minority rights in the Senate is the structure of the Senate itself, where small states get the same representation as larger ones. The Founders did not envision the Senate as the protector of a minority party’s rights, but of small states to resist the influence of larger states in the House. Please stop asserting that the filibuster is something fundamental to the nature of the body.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Let’s see what happens in the Fall first.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    The only short term advantage of getting rid of the filibuster would be to make it easier to put legislation in front of Obama to veto. On the other hand, if they did compromise enough to peel off enough votes to get a bill through, it would make Obama’s veto harder.
    There are no dems running in 2010 in a “red” state because any such would have been wiped out in 2010. The most vulnerable will be Reid in Nevada. GOP will be running in Illinois, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. If the GOP could limit it’s losses to only one of those states, it would be ahead of the game in 2016.
    If the GOP holds the house in 2016 (likely absent a DEM presidential blowout with coattails), and the senate in 2016 (possible with a strong 2014 and at least some help from a presidential campaign), and the White House in 2016 (who knows at this point), then the question of filibuster can be revisited. But both parties should think long and hard about that. We are steering towards more sharply divided government with the faithful on each side edging away from the center and compromise. Killing the filibuster will take out a stop on the pendulum that keeps it from swinging to wildly. As much as those on the right can write out a list of dream legislation that would help the country (and would make the left howl), the left can also write out legislation that would make things even worse for the country.
    If we are going to pull out that spur towards compromise, at least be sure that we have a plan and votes in place to pass legislation that would really change the political landscape, not just send a whiff of red meat to the faithful.

  6. John Weathers says:

    As Mitch said himself in his role as Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi, “It’s a trap!”.

  7. Rafer Janders says:

    And if you can’t trust Mitch McConnell, who can you trust?

  8. Rafer Janders says:

    unilaterally altering one of the Senate’s core protections of minority rights and privileges.

    *sigh* The filibuster is not one of the Senate’s core protections of minority rights and privileges. Minority rights and privileges are protected by (a) the bicameral structure of Congress, with legislation having to pass both the House and the Senate, and (c ) the fact that each state, whether large or small, gets an equal number of senators.

    Due to the one state/two senators rule, it’s already mathematically possible for the smallest 25 states containing 1/6 of the US population to check the will of the largest 25 states containing 5/6 of the US population, meaning that it’s largely an undemocratic, “minority wins” body where the least popular position often carries the day. The filibuster, while sometimes useful, only exacerbates this problem.

  9. beth says:

    that Harry Reid rammed through the Senate in November

    Why is it that when the Democrats use the Senates’s own rules to vote on and pass something it’s called “ramming” it through? Doug, you may think you write objectively, but using phrases like this allows all to see your true colors.

  10. Rafer Janders says:


    Beth, it’s simple, really:

    “Ramming it through” = majority prevails (if majority is Democratic)

    “Democracy” = minority wins (if minority is Republican).

  11. Tillman says:

    @beth: The word choice isn’t that indicative. Relative to our current circumstances, anything that passes through the atherosclerotic tubes of the Senate on a majority vote counts as ramming it through.

    And, like blood, it was probably a good thing in this case.

  12. Tillman says:

    @MarkedMan: Frankly, I don’t know why we continue to comment. Your response is all that’s needed.

  13. beth says:

    @Tillman: Yeah, I guess I should be glad he managed to stay away from the Fox News-preferred “cramming it down our throats”.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    Yes, “rammed through,” – in order that Congress could take routine actions on various proposed nominees and appointments, ones where Republicans refused to move toward simple up-or-down votes simply because they (Republicans) want to deny this president success at any level.

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    McConnell won’t do away with the filibuster because with a Democrat in the White House he has nothing to gain. And yes, if the Republicans do manage to retake the Senate it will be very short lived. That said there is a real possibility that it won’t be McConnell calling the shots next session.

  16. rudderpedals says:

    Sure, McConnell would happily admit to his malevolent intentions while he’s in the minority. Right. Let’s not jump the gun.

  17. Rick DeMent says:

    … and Lucy won’t pull the football away either 🙂