How Race Shaped the Senate Filibustering Games

Of 13 of Obama's judicial nominees who've been blocked, seven are African-Americans.

By Brentin Mock Nov 22, 2013

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lowered a procedural hurdle that Republicans used as a firewall against some of President Obama’s recent nominees to key federal posts. By changing rules regarding Senate filibusters, now a simple majority of 51 votes are needed to move a nominee through confirmation as opposed to the 60 needed before Thursday.

An example of how this filibustering game played out recently came when Obama appointed Rep. Mel Watt, an African-American congressman from North Carolina, to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Republicans banded together to ensure the 60-vote threshold couldn’t be met, hence blocking the nomination. There has been fear that Republicans would do the same to Obama’s nominee Debo Adegbile for head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. 

Democrats currently have a 53-45 edge over Republicans, with two independents to boot. For Democrats to breach the 60-vote filibuster wall, they would need the two independents and at least five Republicans to vote with them.

Now, with the 51-vote simple majority rule in play, Democrats can overcome the filibuster easily, as will Republicans if they ever become the Senate majority. This rule only applies to presidential nominees, though, and not those for the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s not a stretch to say that Republican obstructionism with Obama’s nominees have been racially discriminatory, whether consciously or not. Besides Watt, there was a filibuster this week of the African-American judge Robert L. Wilkins to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Of 13 of Obama’s judicial nominees who’ve been blocked or sidelined, seven are African-Americans, one is Asian-American and one is Native-American, as reported in Huffington Post

In Roll Call, Rep. G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina and the Congressional Black Caucus, said that of Republicans’ recent nominee blocks, race is "not the controlling point but it’s a factor, no question about it," while New York’s Rep. Charles B, Rangel said that a racist motive "goes without saying."

According to the Congressional Black Caucus, 82 of Obama’s nominees have been filibustered compared to 86 filibustered under all of the pre-Obama U.S. presidents in total. That doesn’t factor in those who under Republican obstruction threats withdrew their names from consideration, like National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Rice was on the short list to succeed Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State until Republicans committed themselves to blocking her. 

President Obama high-fived the Senate yesterday for their game-changer, as did a number of high-profile civil rights advocates concerned with how people of color have been denied seats under the old rules. 

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also co-signed the Senate rules change, saying filibustering has "interfered with President Obama’s praiseworthy efforts to diversify the federal bench with women, people of color, and lawyers from a broad range of practice experience."

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina said there is historical precedence for changing filibuster rules from the 1960s, when the vote threshold was lowered, allowing for civil rights legislation to finally pass through.

President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago today, found difficulty pushing civil rights bills through the U.S. House because back then the head of the House Rules Committee could simply refuse to pass them. In the early ’60s, the House was dominated by Southern segregationists who stood in the way of civil rights legislation the way Republicans try to stand in the way of healthcare legislation today. Kennedy helped change those House rules, which led, finally, to the passage of stronger civil rights protections through Congress.