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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Don't Change the Filibuster Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Don't Change the Filibuster

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Congress / SENATE

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Don't Change the Filibuster

Text of Republican leader's opening address.

January 5, 2011

Text of Opening Remarks by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

As prepared for delivery, Wednesday, January 6, 2011

“First, I’d like to take a moment to welcome back all of my colleagues, but particularly the 13 new Republican senators who make it official today. Americans are looking for creative, principled leaders. I’m confident this impressive class of new Republicans will not disappoint.


“I’d also like to welcome my good friend, the majority leader. At a time when some people think the two parties in Washington can’t even agree on the weather, I’ll note that Senator [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and I get along just fine. I expect it’ll stay that way, and I look forward to working together again.

“The big changes today are of course happening across the dome, and I’d like to welcome the many new Republican members of Congress who’ve come to Washington to change the way things are done around here. In this, they’ll be led by a very talented and determined Ohioan whom I’ll now have the great honor of referring to as Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio]. I congratulate Speaker Boehner and the new Republican majority in the House, and I wish them great success in achieving the kinds of reforms and policies the last election was all about.

“Americans want lawmakers to cut Washington spending, tackle the debt, rein in government, and to help create the right conditions for private sector job growth.

“And they also want us to reform the way laws are made. They’re looking to Republicans to provide an alternative to the kind of lawmaking we’ve seen too much of around here in the past few years—a vision that disregards the views of the public in favor of an elite few. A vision that tells people they can look at legislation once it’s passed, that Washington knows best. In short, Americans are looking for a different approach.

“The new Republican majority in the House has shown every sign that they’ve heard the public on all this. And Senate Republicans join them in their efforts, conscious of the limitations and the opportunities that our minority status and the President’s veto pen involve. We will press the majority to do the things the American people clearly want us to do, and we will insist in every possible way that the voices of our constituents are heard, realizing at the same time that the best solutions are forged through consensus, not confrontation.

“Fortunately, the Senate was designed as a place where consensus could and would be reached. Look through modern history. The Social Security Act of 1935 was approved by all but six members of the Senate; the Medicare and Medicaid Acts of 1965 were approved by all but 21; and all but eight senators voted for the Americans with Disabilities Act 21 years ago this year. The lesson is clear: Americans believe that on issues of this importance, one party shouldn’t be allowed to force its will on everyone else. And thanks to the Senate, it rarely has.

“And that’s why a recent proposal to change the Senate’s rules by some on the other side is such a bad idea. For two years, Americans have been telling us that they’re tired of being shut out of the legislative process. They want to be heard. And the response they’re now getting from some on the other side, instead, is a proposal to change the Senate rules so they can continue do exactly what they want with even fewer members than before. Instead of changing their behavior in response to the last election, they want to change the rules.

“Well, I would suggest that this is precisely the kind of approach a supermajority standard is meant to prevent. It exists to preserve the Senate’s role as the one place where the voices of all the people will, in the end, be heard. And, as a result, it has helped ensure that most major agreements enjoy the broad support of the public and the stability that comes with it. 

“Regrettably, the current majority has too often lost sight of this important truth. Since assuming control of the Senate in 2007, it has sought to erode the traditional rights of the minority, and by extension, the rights of our constituents. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service has looked into the way the current majority has run the Senate. Its conclusions are revealing.

“Here are just a few.

“The current majority has denied the minority its right to amend legislation a record 44 times, or more often than the last six majorities combined. It has moved to shut down debate the same day measures are considered nearly three times more often, on average, than the previous six majorities. And its unprecedented denial of the rights of the minority to debate and amend on the floor is compounded by its practice of regularly bypassing Senate committees. All too often the majority has chosen to write bills behind closed doors, depriving Americans of yet another opportunity to have a say in the legislative process. The current majority has set the record here as well, bypassing committees 43 times, or double the previous average.

“The goal of all this, of course, is to pass the most partisan legislation possible while at the same time avoiding difficult votes. And to listen to the leaders of the Democratic Party over the past several months, they’ve had some success at it. The president, the former speaker, and the majority leader have all described this past Congress as the most successful in memory. And yet the most vocal elements of their party remain frustrated. They say the Senate’s broken.

“Why? Their primary complaints appear to be these: the Stimulus passed, but it wasn’t big enough; the health care bill passed, but it didn’t include the government plan; the Senate extended unemployment benefits and cut payroll taxes, but was blocked from raising taxes on small business owners in the process.

“In other words, the majority may have been able to achieve most of what it wanted, but because it didn’t achieve everything it wanted, some aren’t happy. They’re not happy that those Americans who have a different view of things actually had a say in how some of the legislation they’ve passed over the past two years turned out.

“Now, the impulse to change the rules is, in some ways, understandable. No one likes to have to take difficult votes. But that’s nothing new. As the majority whip often says: 'If you don’t like fighting fires, then don’t become a fireman.’ Some have also suggested that one’s view of the filibuster depends on where one sits. And it’s true that when I was in the majority I opposed filibustering judicial nominees. But I opposed doing so when I was in the minority too, and I opposed doing so regardless of who was in the White House. In short, I was against expanding the use of the filibuster into an area in which it traditionally had not been used—period.

“One can agree with that view or not. But it’s one thing to disagree with expanding the use of the filibuster into a non-traditional area, regardless of who’s the president and who’s in the minority. It’s another thing altogether to be in favor of expanding it when one is in the minority, then turn around and urge its elimination altogether when one is in the majority. When it comes to preserving the right to extended debate on legislation, Republicans have been consistent. 

“What’s being considered here is unprecedented. No Senate majority has ever changed the rules except by following those rules; that is, with the participation and agreement of the minority. But it also promises to frustrate those who would approve it.

“First, it’s stating the obvious that anything that passes in the Senate with a narrower majority than 60 is going nowhere in a newly-Republican led House of Representatives. So any short-term gain ends halfway across the dome. Second, a change in the rules aimed at benefiting Democrats today could just as easily be used to benefit Republicans tomorrow. Do our friends across the aisle really want to create a situation where, two or four or six years from now, they suddenly find themselves powerless to prevent Republicans from overturning legislation they themselves have worked so hard to enact?

“But the larger point is this. The Founders crafted the Senate to be different. They crafted it to be a deliberate, thoughtful place. And changing the rules in the way that’s been proposed would unalterably change the Senate itself. It will no longer be the place where the whole country is heard and has the ability to have its say, a place that encourages consensus and broad agreement—in short, it would make this place even less like the place Americans want it to be.

“So it’s my hope that our friends on the other side will put aside their plans, respect the rules of the Senate, and, more importantly, the voice of the people those rules are meant to protect.

“Then we can get about the business the people sent us here to do.

“Today is a day to renew our purpose and our commitment to bipartisanship, not to double down on a partisan approach that has too often marred lawmaking in Washington over the past two years. It is a day to look ahead to what we can achieve together, prompted by the urgings of an electorate that has made its views clear, and united by a love for this institution and this nation.

“The problems we face are enormous—once-in-a generation challenges that will require vision, hard work, and a commitment to work together, to reach consensus. And the Senate is the place for that. At its best, it is a workshop where the nation’s most difficult challenges are faced squarely and addressed with civility and goodwill. And at a time like our own, when one in 10 working Americans is looking for a job and can’t find one, when the national debt threatens the American dream itself, when the solvency of the social safety net is threatened, we must come together. We must find a way to forget the petty skirmishes of the past and forge a new, more hopeful path. We must be motivated by a determination to seek solutions, not mere partisan advantage.

“Americans are looking to Republicans to address the problems we face. But Republicans cannot solve them alone. The problems are too big, too demanding for one party. And we will never succeed in solving them if we retreat to our corners until another election comes around. If our predecessors had done that, they would have never solved anything at all. And this institution would have lost its relevance a long time ago. But they didn’t. And neither can we.

“The men who established this place have left us the right tools for the job. And it is my hope that in the weeks and months ahead, we will use them to renew the promise that inspired them and that continues to inspire Americans, even in difficult times. That promise is the American dream. It’s what unites everyone in this chamber. Preserving it must be our common task.”


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