Republicans Won't Use Senate Rules to Debate Defense Bill

According to reports, Senate Republicans want to debate the Department of Defense appropriations bill but fear that Democrats may prevent them from doing so. This is because under Rule XXII (i.e., the cloture rule) it takes three-fifths of senators (usually 60) to end debate on a motion to proceed to legislation. Consequently, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is trying preemptively to frame the narrative surrounding a failed cloture vote to begin debate on the defense bill. "One week in, our Democratic colleagues tried to stonewall the defense funding bill in committee and are now indicating they may even filibuster a motion to begin considering the House-passed defense bill later this week.” 

Yet despite accusing Democrats of wanting to “stage a political fight” by filibustering the motion to proceed, McConnell appears to want to stage one himself by admitting defeat without trying to win. This is because Republicans are not powerless in the face of a Democratic filibuster of the motion to proceed. They have several tools under the rules that they can use to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Democrats to prevent the Senate from debating a defense appropriations bill. As such, Republicans can increase the likelihood of that debate occurring simply by enforcing the Senate’s existing rules and practices.

For example, in certain circumstances, Rule VIII permits a non-debatable motion to proceed (i.e., a motion to proceed that can’t be filibustered) when the Senate first reconvenes after adjourning. While the maneuver is not guaranteed to work in every instance, Republicans can signal their determination to begin debate on a bill over the Democrats’ objections simply by trying it. Republicans can adjourn at any point on a simple-majority vote. A motion to adjourn cannot be filibustered.

Republicans can also enforce Rule XIX – the so-called “two-speech” rule – on motions to proceed to appropriations bills (including the defense appropriations bill). Under this rule, each senator may only speak twice in the same legislative day on any one question. Once a senator has given two speeches, that senator may not speak again. The Senate votes when there are no senators on the floor who wish to, and may, speak. Republicans can thus force Democrats to mount a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style “talking” filibuster to delay the Senate from beginning debate on a bill to fund the men and women in the armed services. 

Lastly, the Senate’s precedents state that the institution’s presiding officer must call a vote on the pending business “when a senator yields the floor and no other senator seeks recognition.” When coupled with the two-speech rule, the precedents place the burden of delaying a vote on the defense appropriations bill squarely on the Democrats’ shoulders and forces them to hold the floor and speak in order to prevent the Senate from beginning debate on it.

By refusing to utilize the Senate’s existing rules and precedents to begin debate on the Department of Defense Appropriations bill, McConnell and his Republican colleagues appear to be more interested in staging a political fight of their own than in funding the military.