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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Grimes Inflates McConnell’s ‘Gridlock’ Tally

Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Democratic opponent exaggerates when she claims in a TV ad that McConnell “blocked the Senate over 400 times” since 2007. The Senate failed to approve cloture motions to end filibusters on 120 occasions — not “over 400 times” — since McConnell became minority leader seven years ago. Even then, the Democrats can’t blame McConnell for blocking legislation in all 120 cases.

The TV ad also takes an old McConnell quote out of context when the announcer says, “He calls himself ‘a proud guardian of gridlock.’ ” The use of the present tense — followed by the claim that he has “blocked the Senate over 400 times” — suggests McConnell was talking about blocking legislation as minority leader. But that’s not exactly what he said or when he said it.

As the assistant majority leader in 2006, McConnell said: “I have been in the minority in this body and have been a proud guardian of gridlock from time to time when there was a point to it.” But the ad leaves out the part we bolded here for emphasis. His point: The minority party — Democratic or Republican — has the right to use parliamentary tactics to slow down the process and get the time it needs to kill or alter legislation it opposes. But, in this case, he scolded Democrats for “pointless” obstructionism.

‘More than 400 Times’

Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate who is also the Kentucky secretary of state, announced her new TV ad on Oct. 28. The ad, titled “Fire,” shows a house catching fire and then becoming engulfed in flames, as the announcer says: “McConnell can’t light the house on fire, then claim credit for putting it out.” But it’s the evidence — not the overheated images or rhetoric — that we take issue with.

To support its claim that McConnell has set the house on fire, the TV ad says that “he’s blocked the Senate over 400 times.” The campaign website quotes a WFPL-FM report that said that “[s]ince 2007, Senate statistics show McConnell has used the filibuster 413 times as minority leader.” But just because the campaign cites a source doesn’t mean it is accurate.

The article, which was published July 12, confuses filibuster with cloture motions. The 413 figure actually refers to the number of times that a senator (usually the majority leader) filed a cloture motion since January 2007, when the Democrats took control of the Senate and McConnell became minority leader. A cloture motion is filed to set a time limit on debate and bring a bill to the floor for a vote. The motion must receive 60 votes to pass — not a simple majority.

A cloture vote can be used to overcome a filibuster. But, in a June report on the historical use of cloture motions on presidential nominations, the Congressional Research Service warns that filing a cloture motion doesn’t always mean that a filibuster is evident.

CRS, June 26: The motion for cloture is available in the Senate to limit debate on nominations, as on other matters. Cloture can, accordingly, be used to overcome a filibuster against a nomination. Table 6 lists all nominations against which cloture has been moved, showing the outcome of the cloture attempt and the final disposition of the nomination. It would be erroneous, however, to treat this table as a list of filibusters on nominations. Filibusters can occur without cloture being attempted, and cloture can be attempted when no filibuster is evident.

In other words, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can file a cloture motion whether there is a threat of a filibuster or not. It would be wrong to say that McConnell “used the filibuster 413 times,” as the radio station did.

As of Oct. 28, there were 439 cloture motions filed in the Senate. But most of them had been either approved or withdrawn (by the sponsor or by unanimous consent of the Senate), so Grimes can’t claim that McConnell — or anyone else for that matter — has “blocked the Senate over 400 times” during that time.

A better gauge of Senate legislation being “blocked” is the number of cloture motions that failed to gain the required 60 votes — thus preventing legislation from going to the floor for a vote. That happened 120 times, according to the Senate website. (We arrived at that number by adding up the cloture votes (309) from Jan. 12, 2007, to Oct. 28, 2013, and subtracting the number of times that the cloture motion passed (189) during that time. The result: There were 120 times when the Senate failed to end debate.)

Grimes can claim that there have been 120 times since 2007 when the Senate was “blocked” — sometimes only temporarily — but even then she cannot blame McConnell for all of those failed cloture motions. In six of the 120 cases, McConnell filed cloture votes that failed, so it was the Democrats who blocked bills or amendments that McConnell was trying to advance.

For example, Democrats blocked the Withholding Tax Relief Act of 2011, a Republican-sponsored bill that would have repealed a 3 percent withholding of government payments made to private contractors. President Obama threatened to veto the bill. The cloture vote, taken on Oct. 20, 2011, failed 57-43, falling three votes shy of the 60 votes it needed. All the Republicans plus 10 Democrats voted for it.

As is often the case, the Senate voted on a different version of the bill less than a month later. That version passed the Senate 95-0 and the House 405-16, and became law. So, in this case, the legislature was “blocked” for only a month.

McConnell also cannot be blamed for cloture motions filed by Reid on legislation that the Republican leader himself supported.

For example, the House on Dec. 14, 2011, sent the Senate the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011 — a bill to extend the payroll tax cut and continue to provide additional unemployment benefits. McConnell already had indicated his support for extending the payroll tax cut, but there was partisan posturing to overcome and details to be worked out. Reid filed cloture Dec. 15, 2011, but the next day, the Senate by unanimous consent withdrew the motion after negotiations between Reid and McConnell resulted in a bipartisan agreement. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Reid-McConnell substitute bill two days later on Dec. 17, 2011, by a 89-10 vote.

The legislation — which Grimes counts as “blocked” — took all of three days to win Senate approval with McConnell’s help.

(For the record, the legislation was delayed in the House — not the Senate. The Republican-controlled House initially rejected the Reid-McConnell compromise and instead voted 229-193 on Dec. 20, 2011, to send the bill to a House-Senate conference committee to negotiate a new bill. On Feb. 17, 2012, the House passed an amended version of the bill and the Senate that same day gave its approval.)

‘Guardian of Gridlock’

The TV ad also takes out of context a quote from a 2006 speech that McConnell gave on the Senate floor.

The TV screen quotes McConnell as saying, “I’ve been a proud guardian of gridlock,” identifying it as being from Feb. 2, 2006. But the announcer says, “He calls himself ‘a proud guardian of gridlock.’ He’s blocked the Senate over 400 times” — as if McConnell relishes gridlock for the sake of gridlock as Senate minority leader. But that’s not exactly what he said or when he said it. In 2006, Republicans were in power and McConnell was the assistant majority leader. In a floor speech, he was scolding the Democrats for wasting the Senate’s time on parliamentary maneuvers designed to slow down the process — a typical complaint of the party in power.

For more context, we went to the Congressional Record for McConnell’s remarks, which can also be found on this C-Span video:

Feb. 2, 2006: Madam President, this morning we will resume debate on the House-passed tax reconciliation bill. I would like to observe that yesterday and today, up until the time we pass the tax reconciliation bill, we are actually engaging in an utterly futile activity that should have been avoided by the simple act of granting consent. In effect, the minority, in apparently a display of pique, wants to make the Senate, in effect, do again a bill it already did in December.

I am not opposed to dilatory tactics when they are not pointless. I have been in the minority in this body and have been a proud guardian of gridlock from time to time when there was a point to it, when we were actually trying to defeat a measure. But it seems to me to some extent it demeans the institution and grates on the nerves of everyone when common courtesy of granting consent is not offered.

Nevertheless, yesterday and today, we will plod through a bill that we did about 5 weeks ago one more time; at the end, with the same result.

Where you stand on obstructionist behavior depends on where you sit. McConnell in 2006 was in the majority and found the Democrats, from time to time, to engage in “pointless” obstructionism. Today, the Democrats are in power and find McConnell to be an obstructionist. In both cases, the minority party defends its right to slow the process in the world’s most deliberative body and improve legislation.

There is no question there have been more cloture motions filed during Reid’s tenure than that of his predecessors — Republican or Democratic. A quick glance at the Senate chart on the number of cloture motions filed confirms that.

In Reid’s first four years as majority leader, 276 cloture motions were filed from January 2007 to January 2011, including a record 139 in 2007-08. By comparison, 130 cloture motions were filed in the prior four years, from January 2003 to January 2007, when Republican Majority Leader William Frist was in control. That’s an increase of 112 percent.

The number of failed cloture motions has also increased, but not as dramatically.

The Senate failed to approve 79 cloture motions in Reid’s first four years. By comparison, there were 57 failed cloture motions in the prior four years under Frist. That’s a more modest 39 percent increase.

We don’t take issue with Grimes’ opinion that gridlock has gotten worse in Washington during McConnell’s time as minority leader. She’s entitled to her opinion — just as McConnell was entitled to his opinion about the Democratic minority in 2006.

But Grimes uses inflated figures when she says McConnell has “blocked the Senate more than 400 times.”