President Donald Trump urged Republicans Tuesday to change Senate rules to a simple majority vote in order to speed up passage of healthcare and tax reform bills through Congress.
Trump, back from his first official overseas trip, tweeted that the Senate should switch to “51 votes immediately” adding that “Dems would do it, no doubt!”
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2017
Aside from the odd punctuation — why is “TAX CUTS” capitalized?? — the message is simple: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should change the rules of the Senate to eliminate the filibuster on legislation. What that would mean in practical terms is that any debate on a bill could be ended by a simple majority vote and then the legislation could be passed — or voted down — with a simple majority.
It’s the legislative equivalent of what Republicans and Democrats have done over the past four years when it comes to Cabinet posts and all judicial nominations up to and including the Supreme Court.
It’s also a MUCH bigger deal — and something that just isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future.
Current Senate rules mandate that 60 senators — three-fifths of the 100-member Senate — must agree in order to end debate and move forward to a vote on a measure or piece of legislation — a process known as invoking cloture.
The Senate, however, has invoked the so-called “nuclear option” in the past to get certain nominations — most recently of note Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch — through the Senate by a simple majority vote, but there is currently no method for doing so with legislation.
Republicans have instead opted to try to pass tax reform and health care through a process known as reconciliation, which applies to budgetary measures and only requires 51 votes. The process allows lawmakers to vote on critical pieces of the health law without giving Democrats a chance to filibuster, but in turn it places large constraints on members — including limiting debate to only 20 hours and only using it to change laws that are scored by the Congressional Budget Office, which means those that cost money or are implemented as taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has emphatically stated he is against changing senate rules to initiate a nuclear option for the legislative filibuster.
“The core of the Senate is the legislative filibuster,” McConnell told USA Today in April. “This notion that this (changing the filibuster rule to confirm Gorsuch) somehow bleeds over into the legislative filibuster is untrue. I’m opposed to it … I think that’s what fundamentally changes the Senate.”
Even if the Senate were to change the rules to allow for a simple majority vote, the heart of the matter remains that Republicans would need to have a finalized bill ready to be debated on the floor for both healthcare and tax reform. Currently the party is still struggling to agree what those bills should ultimately look like and what the final language should entail.
Trump has criticized the filibuster before. Earlier this month, he tweeted that the country needs a “good shutdown” and called for the election of “more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%.”
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
Let’s start here: Getting rid of the legislative filibuster would make the way the Senate works entirely indistinguishable from the way the House works.
The House is — and was designed to be — a majority-rule entity. From its founding in Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution, which establishes that members of the House must stand for new terms every two years, the whole idea was that the House was the direct voice of the people — reflecting what they wanted at a given time.
That same Constitution — you may have heard of it — established six-year terms for senators, an attempt to differentiate it from the House and create the idea of the Senate as a more deliberate institution.
The filibuster rule — which was formalized in 1917 but not used until 1919 to break a filibuster on the Treaty of Versailles(!) — was to further the distinction between Senate and House. Whereas majority ruled in the House, the filibuster not only gave members of the minority real power but also incentivized bipartisan cooperation by the majority party. Even when rule was changed in 1975 to make it 60 rather than 65 votes that were required to break a filibuster, it remained (and remains) the single most important difference between the House and the Senate.
Now, put the history aside for a minute.
Trump’s tweet is also wrong on the specifics of the two pieces of legislation — health care and tax reform — he is insisting would pass the Senate if not for its 60-vote rule.
As CNN’s Phil Mattingly notes, both health care and tax reform are being moved via reconciliation — a series of budgetary rules that forces everything passed under it to be directly related to the spending and expenditures of the federal government. The advantage of reconciliation is that votes taken under it only require a simple majority to pass.
Which means that, for all intents and purposes, the change Trump is insisting the Senate make is already governing the two pieces of legislation he is tweeting about.
Donald Trump is either blithely unaware of these things or simply doesn’t care. He is and always has been someone who believes that he makes the rules while other people follow them. And, if they don’t suit him — if it’s a bad deal, say — he either adjust the rules or walks away from them.
In Trump’s mind, he’s the President so everyone — the Senate included — should be doing what he says and passing the legislation he wants passed.
Which, of course, is a gross misunderstanding of the separation of powers, the history of the Senate and the current legislative processes governing tax reform and the American Health Care Act.
Many people know that. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be one of them.