Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Democrats propose legislation that Republicans dislike, in this case the formation of a commission to investigate the insurrection of January 6 modeled after a congressional committee where Democrats would be in the majority, set the agenda, and have subpoena power. Republicans object and Democrats negotiate, giving in to every Republican procedural demand. The result is a bipartisan commission with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, shared subpoena power, and a mandate to complete their work this year. The Republican-driven compromise is approved in the House with most Republicans voting against it, then runs into trouble in the Senate when Mitch McConnell expresses reservations, then objections, then opposition, then asks his caucus to filibuster it. Susan Collins of Maine valiantly engages in a doomed attempt to find ten senators who will buck their leadership. Joe Manchin (the guy in the picture) pleads for bipartisanship with Republican colleagues who have no incentive to listen. The bill wins majority support but falls short of the supermajority requirement. It’s done. We all move on, awaiting the next issue (infrastructure policy) where this cycle can repeat itself.
Anyone who’s been watching the Senate in our age of hyper-partisanship could have predicted this outcome during the negotiation stage. Republicans do not want to investigate the events of January 6. It is bad for them politically and will raise unpleasant questions about the actions of some of their members and the former president who still leads them. However, this version of the filibuster set piece is far more volatile than usual and might lead to unintended consequences. I know suggesting this seems tinged with a hint of insanity, because the movie has always ended the same way. But the insurrection is sufficiently different to make opposing an investigation a risky move.
There are three reasons why voting to shut down a bipartisan commission could carry consequences for Republicans:
- Democrats will not move on. It’s one thing to filibuster legislation, but this one is personal for the members of Congress whose lives were threatened by the Capitol mob and who believe a full accounting of what happened is needed to prevent it from happening again. And as a purely political matter, they understand (as do Republicans) that opposing an investigation modeled after the bipartisan 9/11 Commission is indefensible. They hold the political high ground on this issue and are motivated to press their advantage.
- Democrats have the tools to investigate. In addition to motivation, Democrats have means. Nancy Pelosi strongly implied that if Republicans rejected their own negotiated terms, she would move to establish a congressional investigation. This means creating a rancorous forum where sitting members do the investigating, which Republicans will denounce as partisan. And it will be partisan. Democrats will hold a majority of seats, exercise subpoena power, and set the agenda and timeline. But it will be a partisan exercise only because Republicans killed off the bipartisan alternative. And unlike the six partisan House Benghazi investigations, which uncovered nothing, there is a lot to unearth. Republican Senator John Kennedy, the Oxford-educated country lawyer, astutely observed that congressional hearings will keep the insurrection in front of the public long after the bipartisan commission would have been required to wrap up.
This raises the temperature on filibuster reform. Republican opposition to the commission puts the lie to the myth of bipartisanship in the most visible and emotionally charged forum imaginable. To the last remaining opponents of filibuster reform in the Democratic caucus, the theory of the case has been that a supermajority requirement forces moderation and compromise. That theory has now been discredited over what should have been an uncontroversial matter. If Republicans can’t approve an equitable investigation of the worst assault on Congress in two centuries, how can any reasonable person conclude that they are operating in good faith? It remains to be seen how much this moves Joe Manchin to accept even small modifications to Senate procedure, but the pressure on him from within the Democratic caucus will be intense.