It has become a routine in the Senate. Last Friday, congressional Republicans, with the aid of a handful of Democrats, successfully obstructed the passage of a global warming bill that would have required major reductions in greenhouse gases.
The measure, falling 12 votes shy of the 60 needed, had the potential for majority support in the Senate -- neither presidential candidate made the vote, but both Barack Obama and John McCain said they likely would have sided with the yeas. Now, however, it seems to have been pulled from consideration by Democratic leadership.
Such inaction would strike a more depressing note if it were not the norm. Republicans in the Senate have filibustered more than 70 pieces of legislation (73) in the current session of Congress. Not all of these attempts have ended in success. Bills have passed. But the modern rate of obstructionism has been historic, far surpassing the previous record of 62 cloture votes.
"The use of a filibuster as a routine measure on virtually every bill and the use of the filibuster on bills were there is a consensus on a tactic to slow things down, to make the place look bad, that is new," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute. "It is sending Congress' approval down into the sewer but it is also sending Republicans even further into the sewer."
Among the pieces of legislation that have been blocked include a bill that would have amended the 1964 Civil Rights act to allow employees to file charges of pay discrimination; an expanded economic stimulus package; an act that would have allowed children of immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than five years the chance to gain legal status; and a slew of Iraq War troop withdrawal measures.
The GOP's current standard-bearer, John McCain, has been in the midst of several of these efforts. He voted against invoking cloture - i.e. ending debate - on a bill that would have raised the minimum wage (though voted for cloture an alternate, more cautious measure). He also held up blockage of an amendment that would have standardized the dwell time of troops serving in Iraq; and legislation that would have restored habeas corpus rights to enemy combatants under U.S. detention. On the whole, however, he, like Obama, has been more absent than active in recent Senate affairs, having missed more than 350 votes (60.5%) during the current Congress.
The use of procedural impediments for political purposes is nothing new in the halls of Congress. Former Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle was cast as a do-nothing obstructionist before being voted out of office. Reid too has, when in the minority, used filibustering measures to slow down GOP objectives, once bringing the Senate to the brink of a "nuclear" showdown over judicial appointments.
But mathematics suggests that the current Republican leadership in the Senate has taken the practice to a new extreme. Former Minority Whip Trent Lott freely admitted back in the summer of 2007, that the "strategy of being obstructionist" was being deployed, arguing that it was neither historically unique nor significant.
On the climate change bill considered last week, the GOP again dug in its heels by utilizing parliamentary maneuvers. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - upset over the pace of consideration of Republican judicial nominees effectively shut down the entire Senate by forcing the Senate clerk to read "the entire 500 page global warming bill" out loud.
"If you use [the filibuster] selectively and on important issues, and especially if you use it to force the majority to negotiate with you, that is appropriate," said Ornstein. "But if you use it routinely... to throw molasses into the road and slow everything down, I don't think people will find any of that laudatory."
For the record, the climate change legislation, according to the Associated Press, "would have capped carbon dioxide coming from power plants, refineries and factories, with a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 71 percent by mid-century."
Republicans painted the bill as "a huge tax increase," to which the Democrats noted that the legislation would actually provide tax relief to help people pay energy prices.