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Opinion: Columnists

After years of bashing filibuster, will Senate Dems embrace it?

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During Harry Reid's tenure as majority leader, there has been no dirtier word in the Senate than "filibuster." On perhaps a million occasions, Reid and his Democratic colleagues have accused Republicans of using the 60-vote requirement to obstruct the Senate and prevent lawmakers from doing the country's business.

In November 2013, in a virtual frenzy of anti-filibuster agitation, Reid and most of the Senate's Democrats exercised the so-called "nuclear option," an unprecedented procedural maneuver that allowed a bare majority of Democratic senators to kill the filibuster as it was used against the president's judicial and executive branch nominations. Reid left in place the filibuster as applied to legislation, but threatened to kill that, too, if Republicans continued their recalcitrant ways.

That was then. Now, there is a very real possibility the GOP might win control of the Senate in November. For the first time in eight years, Democrats would find themselves in the minority. And you'll never guess what some strategists close to Reid are talking about: Yes, Democrats are threatening to use the once-hated filibuster to stop Republican initiatives.

Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Reid who now works for the lobbying and communications powerhouse QGA Public Affairs, wrote a brief piece in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday commenting on reports that Republicans are crafting a conservative agenda to enact should they win the Senate. Republicans can plan all they want, Manley suggested, but they can forget about actually passing their bills.

"What everyone needs to realize is that there is no way that Senate Republicans are going to pick up enough seats to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold," Manley wrote. "Yes, if they play their cards right, they will be able to pick up a handful of Democratic votes on some issues, but would still likely fall short of 60 votes."

That's as clear a threat as one could find of Democratic filibusters to come.

To outsiders, it might seem hypocritical that politicians would spend years bitterly denouncing something, then turn on a dime and adopt it when conditions change. But that's the nature of the United States Senate.

So if Democrats become the minority, look for them to rely on the 60-vote threshold to stop a lot of Republican legislation. Look for Republicans to criticize them for it. And then look for both sides to bide their time.

Some Republicans would like to change the filibuster-for-nominations rule back to what it was. But without a Republican president there is no pressing need to do that; a majority GOP could stop a Barack Obama nominee by themselves, if they were united. And as far as legislation is concerned, there would be no reason for Republicans to kill the filibuster while a Democrat remains in the White House. The president would just veto GOP-passed measures anyway, and in most cases that would be that.

But then there is 2016. If Republicans were to win the White House, Senate, and House, the Senate's GOP leaders would enjoy an advantage they've never had: the power to confirm the Republican president's nominees without worrying about Democratic opposition. Conversely, Democrats have never had to face a situation in which they had no filibuster power to stop a Republican president's nominees. They probably won't enjoy it — but they'll have Sen. Reid to thank for it.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans will face a serious temptation. The new GOP president will have a legislative agenda. The filibuster would be the Democrats' only real power to stop, slow, or shape it. And Reid already set the precedent for changing the Senate's rules to do away with filibusters on nominations. Do the same for the legislative filibuster? The Senate could face a turning point; it's not clear what Republicans would do.

Until then, if the GOP does take the Senate this November, Democrats will have to decide what to do when they want to stop legislation favored by the majority. Will they remember all those terrible things they said about the 60-vote requirement?

"That's always been the unasked question when Democrats were complaining about filibusters," said a high-ranking GOP aide. "Will they just wave everything through that Republicans want to pass?"

Not a chance in the world. "I bet if you ask any one of them if they'll give up the right to debate, they'd all say no," the aide continued. "Makes you wonder why anyone took them seriously."

Indeed.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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