President Obama says that, when it comes to congressional action on gun-safety legislation, “This time must be different.”
No longer should partisan obstruction be allowed to block congressional action on sensible reforms that are favored by great majority of Americans, the president says.
But Americans who want sensible gun laws need to recognize that to address mass violence the Senate must, when it convenes January 22, begin the process by addressing abuses of the filibuster power.
Even then, it won't be easy. There are plenty of shaky Democrats.
But those Democrats won't be put to the test unless there is a vote. And there is unlikely to be a vote on any major piece of gun-safety legislation without reform of the filibuster.
Historically intended to guarantee debate, the filibuster has been reinterpreted in recent years as a tool to preempt debate. This has created what Senators Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, correctly characterize as a “culture of obstruction” in the Senate. Merkley, Warren and other Democratic senators have the power to rewrite the chamber’s rules at the opening of the new session, a power they must exercise this coming week if this session is to be different from the last—which have seen the highest number of filibusters in congressional history.
Every evidence suggests, in the absence of the reforms proposed by Merkley and Warren, any debate about meaningful gun-safety legislation will be preempted, any action obstructed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and his caucus currently control just forty-five of 100 seats in the chamber. They actually lost ground in the 2012 elections. But unless filibuster rules are reformed, they will be able to block action on the measures President Obama and Vice President Biden have proposed in response to the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
The key phrase there is “block action.” In recent years, the filibuster has not in any meaningful sense been used to give the minority a chance to air its views, to encourage real debate and where necessary to extend debate or to allow convincing arguments to be made. It has been used to block debate by preventing consideration of even popular proposals.