Commentary

Don’t be fooled. Mitch McConnell is still calling the shots in the Senate.

Don’t be fooled. Mitch McConnell is still calling the shots in the Senate.
FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2016 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. When President Donald Trump nominates a Supreme Court justice, Senate Democrats and Republicans will come under immense pressure. Liberals will insist that Democrats block the choice. Some conservatives will demand that McConnell blow up long-standing rules to get the new president's choice on the high court. Photo: (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

When Democrats announced that they had reached a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell, it looked like McConnell overplayed his hand. After all, McConnell had ground the Senate to a halt with his demand that Democrats promise never to eliminate the filibuster as part of the deal.

Democrats should remind themselves: McConnell never overplays his hand.

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The reason the filibuster is a problem is that the mere threat of it stops anything from advancing. It’s not the filibuster itself that causes issues. Gone are the days when Senators stand Jimmy Stewart-like and talk for hours to stop legislation from advancing.

The issue is that it takes 60 votes to stop debate on any issue. As long as Republicans hang together, they can effectively block any legislation they don’t like from passing, even though they are in the minority. That means the entire Biden administration agenda, including LGBTQ rights, is hostage to McConnell’s whims.

During the negotiations, even though Democrats were in the majority, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking ability, Republicans were still acting like the majority party. New Democratic senators, like Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, couldn’t be seated on committees. The committees themselves were still chaired by Republicans.

The agreement between McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer only came to pass because McConnell suddenly decided that months-old statements by two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, was all the reassurance he needed that the filibuster was here to stay.

In announcing the agreement, Schumer exulted that it was “exactly what Democrats proposed from the start.” But from McConnell’s perspective, it was far from a concession.

For one thing, McConnell got to stir up dissension in the Democratic ranks. He made it clear that the Democrats’ margins are razor-thin – not just on this issue but on everything else going forward. It won’t take much for Manchin or Sinema to derail deals on their own, as McConnell made perfectly clear.

More to the point, by keeping the threat of the filibuster in place, McConnell can still do what he’s best at… making sure the Senate accomplishes nothing that Democrats want. The most egregious example of this was the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court by President Obama. 

In case you had any questions about McConnell’s plans, he made it perfectly clear in his response to Schumer. McConnell vowed “scorched-earth” and “immediate chaos” if Democrats eliminate the filibuster.

McConnell’s refusal to come to an agreement with Schumer for just a few days shows that he’s not kidding. He single-handedly stopped the Senate from functioning, even though his party is in the minority.

Democrats are rightly enraged by McConnell’s tactics. Essentially, the Republican is saying that the minority party has veto power over everything, even though voters rejected them. That turns democracy upside down. McConnell is cynically hoping that a dysfunctional Congress helps his party in the midterms.

Eliminating the filibuster would make the Senate like the House: the majority rules. Eliminating the filibuster may enrage McConnell. But keeping it enables him.

Perhaps there will come a time when all the Democrats are so fed up with Republican obstruction that they finally pull the trigger. In the meantime, the Senate is still Mitch McConnell’s world.

Democrats just live in it.

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