The entire 42-member Senate Republican caucus' decision to filibuster all legislation until an extension of the Bush tax cuts is passed is unusual, but it is not entirely unprecedented. Typically the filibuster, wherein a block of 41 or more senators vote against ending debate and moving to a vote on legislation, is used to stop bills that the minority finds especially dangerous. Historically it was employed infrequently, but its use has proliferated in the last few years. With Republicans now routinely filibustering any legislation they find objectionable, it has become common to think of the Senate as actually having a supermajority requirement to pass legislation (it does not).
The Republicans' current stance is fundamentally different: rather than filibustering bills they do not like, they will filibuster everything until they get a full extension of the Bush tax cuts. They are unwilling to accept the Democrats' preferred extension for everyone making less than $250,000, or the compromise offered by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to extend the tax cuts on incomes below $1 million per year. They will not free up the legislative logjam until Democrats, who hold the majority and the White House, agree to an extension of all the cuts. Thus, the minority party has effectively grabbed control of the agenda. This is not how Congress normally operates.
But it is not wholly without historical precedent, although experts disagree on what exactly constitutes a fair comparison. The only recent events that might be comparable are the holds that senators sometimes place on nominees to get an unrelated demand met. One senator holding up one nominee, though, is a much smaller gumming of the works than all legislation grinding to a halt. The more analogous move, which is used less often, is the "blanket hold," in which an entire group of nominees is stopped. For example, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby had a hold earlier this year on nearly all executive-branch nominees until money was spent on a couple of obscure defense and law-enforcement projects in his state.
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says blanket holds are essentially what Senate Republicans are currently doing. “This strategy is not new,” Binder says. “We often refer to it as 'hostage taking.' That is, senators block a full range of bills to force action on one bill they favor.” In the past, Democrats have also used the maneuver: in 1934 Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) blocked bills until he was able to obtain a vote on farm-bankruptcy legislation. More recently Senate Democrats blocked bills in 1996 to force a vote on raising the minimum wage.
Norm Ornstein, an expert on Congress and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says, “What we had in the past is individual senators or small groups of senators placing holds. A complete party holding this blanket filibuster is unprecedented. There has been a paradigm shift over the last four years. It’s not that the rules changed; they didn’t change. It’s the organized way a minority party operates that shifted.” That new paradigm might force the Senate to change its rules. One particular tantalizing option for political junkies that Ornstein mentioned: making senators actually stay on the floor and carry out filibusters, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which would require a rule change. So maybe some good could come from the mess currently holding up popular proposals to reward young patriots with a desire to defend their country, such as the DREAM Act and the effort to repeal "don’t ask, don’t tell."