Republicans prepare their wish list for filibuster-free Senate


If Democrats do trigger the so-called “nuclear option” to carve out a special exception to normal filibuster rules to approve new voting rights legislation, they may actually be paving the path for stiffer voting standards — eventually.

Political pros say the next time Republicans take the reins in Washington, they’ll not only use the new filibuster-free window to erase some of Democrats’ changes, but they’ll also go even further, imposing their ideas about election integrity on the whole country.

Ideas like forcing states to clean up voter rolls or banning the practice of ballot harvesting would be possible if Republicans didn’t have to face a Democratic filibuster.

But it won’t stop there, Republicans vow.

If Democrats use a shortcut to carve a filibuster exception for their priority issue, it will quickly be expanded to accommodate Republican priorities the next time Republicans take control of the political levers in Washington.

Sen. John Cornyn ticked off a list.

“More pro-life bills, more bills supporting, let’s see, universal carry under the Second Amendment, say more border security, more national security legislation to support our military,” the Texas Republican said. “Those are just a few of the areas.”

Democrats are wrestling with what to do about the filibuster, a defining feature of the Senate that gives the party out of power a say in what goes on — and in this case, is blocking Democrats from delivering on several major items on their wishlist.

Party leaders entered the year pondering whether they could defang the filibuster across the board, but opposition from within their ranks shelved those plans. Then Democratic leaders settled on a more narrow strategy — carve out an exception just for voting rights, which party leaders say are under attack in Republican-led states.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s exact strategy is still developing, but he appears to be angling for a vote sometime next week on the “nuclear option” — a shortcut to change the filibuster rules through a majority vote, rather than the two-thirds usually required for such changes. Or, as Republicans put it, breaking the rules to change the rules.

For now, Democrats insist the new filibuster carveout would only apply to voting rights.

That already leaves Republicans plenty of room to maneuver.

J. Christian Adams, president of the voter-integrity group Public Interest Legal Foundation, said Republicans could use a voting-rights carveout to tackle longstanding issues with dirty voter rolls and the legacy of the 1993 motor-voter law and the 2001 Help America Vote Act. He said a conflict between the laws has meant noncitizens have been able to register and, in some cases, cast ballots in federal elections, even though it’s not permitted under the law.

“One of the things they need to do is clean up motor-voter,” Mr. Adams said.

Republicans also have been eyeing a crackdown on what’s known as ballot harvesting, where political operatives collect and file ballots that were mailed to voters. Republicans say the practice is ripe for fraud or pressuring vulnerable people on how to vote.

A national standard for voter-ID could also be in the future, though Mr. Adams urged caution on that score. He said it would only be as good as the federal Justice Department’s willingness to enforce it.

“I know the people who would be enforcing this national standard, and they’re not going to enforce it,” said Mr. Adams, who used to work on voting rights in the department.

Democrats are well aware of what Republicans might do.

It’s one reason Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, has resisted using the nuclear option to change the filibuster rules.

“Anytime there’s a carveout, you eat the whole turkey. There’s nothing left,” he told reporters earlier this month.

Other members of the Democratic Caucus, though, said it’s worth taking the chance.

“That’s the risk, but it’s a risk that we have to take on behalf of protecting democracy,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has identified a list of 18 bills he would pursue in a world where the filibuster was defanged, ranging from environmental policy to immigration.

Punishing sanctuary cities, blocking settlement payments to illegal immigrants arrested at the border and approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would all be prime offers.

Indeed, Mr. McConnell has signaled there’s no need to wait until Republicans retake the majority.

Though it’s a rarely used power, any senator can try to force a bill to the floor, and Mr. McConnell said he’ll do that if the filibuster threshold for beginning debate is lowered. Republicans have already introduced the 18 bills, making them available for action.

Some Democrats say they expect Republicans to erase the filibuster next time they have control anyway, so it makes sense for the Democrats to do it now and tally whatever gains they can.

“There’s every reason to believe they would do that anyway, one way or the other,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.

He said when Democrats triggered the nuclear option in 2013 to end filibusters of presidential nominees, they left Supreme Court picks out in part because Republican senators begged for that carveout. Then Republicans gained control and when the next Supreme Court pick arose, the GOP triggered the nuclear option themselves.

“They have no credibility on this point, unfortunately,” he said.

His recollection of 2013 conflicts with that of other Democrats, including Mr. Schumer, the current top Democrat in the chamber, who told CNN in 2017 that he had argued for the Supreme Court exception, as well as one for Cabinet picks.

“I won on Supreme Court, lost on Cabinet,” Mr. Schumer said.

Mr. McConnell in 2013 also warned Democrats that breaching the filibuster wall on some nominees would mean the Supreme Court would be next.

“If the majority leader changes the rules for some judicial nominees, he is effectively changing them for all judicial nominees, including the Supreme Court,” he said.

Mr. McConnell would fulfill that prophecy in 2017, installing the first of President Trump’s three Supreme Court picks after using the nuclear option to change filibuster rules for justices.

He now offers that example as a caution for Democrats eager for another round of nuclear warfare in the Senate.

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