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Why Sen. Mike Lee says nuking the filibuster would be a disaster for Democrats, Republicans

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during an election night event for Republican candidates in Sandy on Nov. 3, 2020.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during an election night event for Republican candidates in at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Nuking the Senate filibuster would be a disaster for both Democrats and Republicans, Sen. Mike Lee says.

The Utah Republican said the point of the filibuster and the Senate itself is to provide for deliberative debate and forge compromise among a diverse and divided nation.

It’s a prudent and common sense way to protect the rights of minority views within a legislative body, he said, adding that without the filibuster, both parties would have less of an incentive to build consensus coalitions.

“Our elite-driven institutions would, I think, in those circumstances tend to self-reinforce and our politics would almost certainly sink to an even angrier and toxic level,” Lee said at a Heritage Foundation forum Tuesday.

Lee also wrote an op-ed in the National Review about keeping the filibuster.

Democrats took slim control of the 50-50 Senate split by virtue of having the vice president as a member of their party. Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

Several Democratic lawmakers have called for abolishing the filibuster in the past month. But two Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona — effectively ended that talk by declaring their support for the Senate cloture rule, which requires 60 votes to end floor debates and pass most legislation.

Still, Lee sees danger in the idea of Democrats using the so-called “nuclear option” to do away with the cloture rule and allowing bills to move forward with a simple majority vote.

The left has come to see the rule as an anti-democratic obstacle to their view of progress and that there is no downside to removing it, Lee said.

“I think they’ve got it exactly backward. The filibuster in reality is a good thing and it’s a tool for both sides. One that encourages both sides to come together to try to achieve a degree of consensus and compromise,” he said.

The true purpose in nuking the filibuster is to allow the majority to pass partisan bills that are not “compelling” enough to attract 60 votes, he said. It would mean passing legislation with 51 votes that the parties otherwise wouldn’t be able to enact, he said.

For Democrats, that would be bumping up minimum wage, passing statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, increasing the number of Supreme Court justices and federalizing election law, Lee said.

Should Republicans regain control, it could include defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, school choice, slashing the federal budget and other conservative policies.

Though that might sound good to many Republicans who would now hope that the Democrats eliminate the rule, Lee said he doesn’t agree.

“While nuking the filibuster might be tempting for both sides, I think ultimately it would be bad for the Senate and it would be bad for the country,” he said.

Whatever gains one party makes through the process would be short term, escalating the political temperature and making political conflicts much more contentious and potentially more violent, Lee said. As the nation grows bigger and more diverse and more divided, leaders should seek for consensus, he said.

“I think that means we shouldn’t be trying to resolve our problems through zero sum partisan gain whenever we have the chance,” Lee said. “I think we need to have the prudence to check our own ambitions and our own power at the same time.”