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Three lessons from Chris Murphy’s gun control filibuster

Molly E. Reynolds

For nearly fifteen hours between Wednesday morning and early Thursday, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), along with his Connecticut colleague Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), led a filibuster on the floor of the Senate aimed at addressing gun control issues in the aftermath of last weekend’s mass shooting in Orlando. Other than learning that Wednesday is pizza night in the Murphy household, what else should we take away from this Mr. Smith Goes to Washington­-style exercise? Here are three lessons:

1. The real meaning of “I” in “I hold the floor until I yield the floor.”

Anyone who tuned into yesterday’s filibuster joined Senate procedure wonks (and faithful viewers of the West Wing) in the knowledge that a senator who holds the floor can yield to another senator for a question without yielding the floor. Indeed, 38 of Murphy’s 45 Democratic colleagues (as well as two Republicans, Senators Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Pat Toomey (R-PA)), came to the chamber yesterday to ask “questions.” In many cases, these were lengthy speeches—Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), for example, read brief biographies of all 49 Orlando victims—in which the speaker satisfied the question requirement with a conclusion that asked Murphy for his reactions to their statement.

This kind of teamwork on extended speech-making is not unusual. When Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) took the floor to talk for 21 hours about the Affordable Care Act in 2013, he took questions from nine fellow Republicans (as well as two Democrats). Last May, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) got an assist from ten colleagues, including seven Democrats, during his filibuster of a bill extending the PATRIOT Act. The depth of Murphy’s bench not only reduced the energy he had to expend speaking, but also helped guarantee that the entire discussion was on-message and focused on the topic at hand; Murphy did not have to resort to reading the phone book to fill the hours.

2. In policy terms, it’s hard to know if the filibuster was a success…

When Murphy left the floor early Thursday morning, it was reported that Senate leaders had agreed to consider two gun control amendments: one that would address the ability of suspected terrorists to purchase guns and a second that would expand background checks for gun purchases. Details of the deal ensuring consideration are still emerging, but it is difficult to know if Murphy’s filibuster caused Senate leaders to agree to hold votes on them. It is possible that, had Democrats simply threatened to object to the motion to proceed to debate on the underlying spending bill, Republican leaders would have been forced to agree to consider the amendments for which Murphy and his allies were pushing. In the contemporary Senate, this is often how obstruction proceeds: without extended speeches and off the floor, with the two sides negotiating behind the scenes.

3. …but the political victory is perhaps more important

As my colleague Sarah Binder and her co-author Steve Smith wrote in their 1997 book on the filibuster, “encouragement from external groups…has given senators an incentive to exploit their procedural rights, sometimes leading them to block legislation with the filibuster or with holds and at other times leading them to use procedural prerogatives to force the Senate to consider issues of importance to parochial, partisan, or national constituencies.” On these grounds, Murphy’s filibuster was unequivocally a success in the eyes of its supporters. As the filibuster neared its end, Murphy reported that his office had received 10,000 phone calls supporting his efforts, and the hashtag #filibuster was trending on Twitter for much of the day. Even if the underlying amendments are not adopted—a real possibility that Murphy acknowledged in one of his final speeches of the evening—the visibility of the exercise is likely to pay political dividends for Democrats in the coming weeks.

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