The failure of the Republican majority in Congress to defund President Obama’s executive amnesty this week has once again engendered bitterness among some conservatives toward the party’s leadership. Accusations that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell caved to Obama’s pressure are widespread, but the true cause of the failure to defund amnesty can be found within Senate traditions and the Constitution itself. The Constitution may also provide the ultimate solution to Obama’s executive overreach.
Because the authors of the Constitution distrusted a strong central government, they made it difficult to enact new laws. Because the framers worried that the majority might tyrannize a minority, they gave the president veto power over laws passed by Congress and the courts the right to strike down laws judged to be unconstitutional. Democratic filibusters must also be considered by Republican leaders, but it is the presidential veto that holds the greatest threat to the Republican agenda.
Under the Constitution, the House and Senate pass bills with a simple majority vote, but the Senate has traditionally allowed unlimited debate before a vote. The strategy of a filibuster, a prolonged speech to prevent a vote, has long been used by minority senators to prevent those in the majority from passing legislation. Filibusters no longer require longwinded speechmaking. Under current Senate rules, to end debate on a bill, senators must first vote for cloture. According to the Senate website, the cloture rule was intended to give senators a means to overcome filibusters and dates back to the Woodrow Wilson Administration. Originally, the rule required a two-thirds vote to end debate on bill, but this was changed to three-fifths, 60 votes, in 1975. A filibuster is now merely the inability of the majority party to get enough votes for cloture.
What the cloture rule means to conservatives now is that, since Republicans hold 54 Senate seats, they will need at least six Democratic votes to invoke cloture and bring bills to a vote. If the Democrats remain united, they can deny the Republicans the ability to bring their agenda to a Senate vote, in which case it can never become law. This was the case with the attempt to defund DHS.
Bills that are passed by both the House and Senate face another constitutional hurdle before becoming law. According to the Constitution, bills passed by Congress then go to the president where they can become law in one of two ways. First, the president can sign the bill and it immediately becomes law. Second, the president can do nothing and the bill will become law in 10 days as long as Congress remains in session.
The president can also reject, or veto, the bill. For a regular veto, the president sends the bill back to Congress with a message describing why the bill was vetoed, as in President Obama’s veto of the Keystone pipeline. More rare is the pocket veto. If Congress adjourns before the 10 days is up and the president fails to sign the bill, the bill never becomes law.
Congress can override a presidential veto. When the president returns the bill to Congress, the bill can still be passed without the president’s approval. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote of the members present. A bill that is subject to a pocket veto simply dies and cannot be overridden. It must be debated and passed again by the next Congress.
In the current Congress, overriding a veto would be difficult in spite of the historic Republican majority. Assuming all congressmen were present, a two-thirds majority would require 67 Senate votes and 288 House votes. This means that 13 Democratic senators and 41 Democratic representatives would have to vote against the president even if all Republicans were united. The Congressional Research Service reports that between 1789 and 2004 only 106 of 1,484 regular vetoes were successfully overridden, a seven percent success rate.
Most of President Obama’s signature pieces of legislation were passed in his first two years when the Democrats held control of both houses of Congress, but Democrats in 2009 through 2010 also had an important advantage that today’s Republicans lack: a president who would sign their legislation into law. As Republicans try to roll back Obamacare and other Obama-era legislation, they have the opposite situation, a president who will viciously wield the veto pen to preserve his legacy. Barring a major break between the Democrats in Congress and President Obama, it is unlikely that any presidential vetoes will be overridden.
Two strategies have been floated by Republicans to outflank the Democratic obstruction. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) recently called on Republican leaders to invoke the “nuclear option” and totally eliminate the filibuster. In 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) changed the rules to eliminate the filibuster for the confirmation of presidential appointments. According to the Washington Post, the filibuster still stands for bills, but not for votes on presidential nominees.
Eliminating the filibuster would allow Republicans to pass the bill in the Senate, but the plan has two major flaws. First, the larger hurdle, President Obama’s veto, would remain so any successes would be short-lived. Second, the Republicans will one day need the filibuster themselves since it is unlikely that any Senate majority will ever be permanent.
A second strategy would be to use a budget reconciliation, the tool used by Harry Reid to pass Obamacare, to pass conservative legislation. As former New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg explained in the Wall St. Journal, a budget reconciliation requires only 51 votes but the circumstances where it can be used are extremely limited. Additionally, the final budget bill would still be subject to a presidential veto.
Sheer numbers and constitutional processes make it unlikely that a direct frontal assault against President Obama will work. A more likely strategy is for the Republicans in Congress to seek areas where they can find common ground with moderate Democrats as they did with the Keystone pipeline. Winning even a few Democratic votes would force Obama to either use his veto or allow the bill to become law, putting pressure squarely on the president.
While it is possible – or even likely – that President Obama will veto a bipartisan bill, doing so would change the dynamic in Washington. Since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the Democrats have derided them as obstructionists who do nothing more than say “no.” When President Obama uses his veto power or Senate Democrats use the filibuster, it will be the president who is obstructing the will of the people.
The Republicans made a massive strategic blunder in the battle over DHS funding when House Republicans chose not to focus solely on President Obama’s illegal amnesty, a tactic that might have won some Democratic allies. Instead, the Wall St. Journal notes that the bill included several amendments to repeal Mr. Obama’s less controversial moves on immigration going all the way back to 2011. As a result, the Democrats were united and a few Republicans even voted against the bill.
Further, as Karl Rove notes, the decision of a Texas federal court judge blocking Obama’s amnesty removed the need to defund the DHS in the first place. The courts have at least temporarily stopped Obama’s executive action where Congress could not. The possibility remains that the injunction will be made permanent and the president will suffer an embarrassing legal defeat.
Although the courts have been weakened by the appointment of judicial activists to the bench, including four to the Supreme Court, the judicial power to declare Obama’s actions unconstitutional is the best hope. The potential threat to Obama’s agenda may be why a Rasmussen poll recently found that 43 percent of Democrats feel that Obama should be able to ignore the courts.
While the election has not given Republicans a carte blanche to impose their policies and reverse Obama’s, it has given them a far stronger hand than they previously held. Republicans must decide whether to squander this advantage on a pointless and unwinnable fight or whether to build a bipartisan majority that can actually accomplish the work of the people.