Thursday, January 28, 2021

What's your FQ? Take our filibuster quiz -- Jan. 28, 2021 column


The filibuster is safe, for now.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed the Senate to get on with its work after two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said they would not vote to bust the filibuster.

But saying the filibuster is safe is like saying the ground beef you left on the counter with your dog in the kitchen is safe while you go to the living room to greet guests. Which is to say, not very.

Senate traditionalists have long argued that the filibuster protects the political minority’s rights and forces a bipartisan approach by requiring a supermajority to break one.

Since the filibuster impedes the party in power from enacting its agenda, Republicans now want to use it to stifle Democratic plans. Meanwhile, some Democrats want to ditch the filibuster to smooth the way for President Joe Biden, although doing so would also smooth the way for the next Republican president.

One thing is certain: With the Senate comprised of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, the filibuster fight is just heating up.

How much do you know about the filibuster? Take our 10-question quiz.

1)     What’s the origin of the word filibuster?

A.   Italian word for an insect with a long tongue

B.    Dutch word for a pirate, with French and Spanish connections

C.    Old English word for breaking a wild horse

D.   French word for an article of women’s clothing


2)    When did the filibuster come to be used to prevent a vote on a bill?

A.   1820s

B.    1850s

C.    1880s

D.   1920s


3)    Which of these is not correct?

A.   The filibuster is a tool used to kill or change legislation in the Senate, originally by talking it to death but now by threatening to filibuster

B.    Representatives used to be able to filibuster, but the House changed its rules

C.    Senators used to be able to talk as long as they wanted on any issue

D.   The right to filibuster is in the Constitution


4)    Many Americans know the Senate filibuster from the classic 1939 Frank Capra film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” What did Mr. Smith – a.k.a. Jimmy Stewart -- want to build?

A.   A local savings and loan

B.    A hotel

C.    A boys’ camp

D.   A border wall

5)  What does it mean to invoke cloture?

             A. Senators vote to end debate

             B. Senators vote to go on vacation

             C. Senators go to the cloakroom and confer

             D. Senators meet lobbyists behind closed doors to raise money

 6) What’s Rule 22?

             A. A measuring tool invented by Thomas Jefferson

             B. A rule allowing unlimited free speech in the Senate

             C. A rule adopted in 1917 that permits the Senate to end debate with a two-thirds majority vote

             D. A rule prohibiting senators from talking more than 22 consecutive hours

 7) Southern Democratic senators used the filibuster in the 20th century to do what?

             A. Block civil rights legislation

             B. Block anti-lynching legislation

             C. Block rock-and-roll lyrics they thought obscene

             D. Block both civil rights and anti-lynching legislation

  8) Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina holds the Senate record for longest individual speech. How long did Thurmond filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957?

           A. 22 hours and 3 minutes

           B. 23 hours and 59 minutes

           C. 24 hours and 18 minutes

           D. 25 hours and 2 minutes

  9) In 1975, the Senate changed the number of votes required for cloture. How many votes are required now to end debate?

         A. Three-fifths – or 60 of the current 100 senators

         B.  Half plus one -- 51 senators

         C. Half plus five – 55 senators

         D. Three-fourths – 75 senators

 10) A group of Southern Democrats staged the longest filibuster in American history against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How long did that filibuster last?

    A.  40 days

    B.  50 days

    C.  60 days

    D. 75 days




1)    B

2)    B

3)    D

4)    C

5)    A

6)    C

7)    D

8)    C

9)    A

10)  C

Sources: U.S. Senate Historical Office on, Congressional Research Service reports.

Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. Contact her at

© 2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

A new president pledges unity -- Jan. 21, 2021


As Joe Biden became president Wednesday, he pledged to work for unity and asked all Americans to join him.

“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” he said in his Inaugural Address on the West Front of the Capitol.

Few would disagree – in theory, anyway.

Biden’s call for Americans to treat each other with dignity and respect, to lower the temperature, stop shouting and stand for truth are a welcome change in presidential tone and approach.

But civility doesn’t mean standing still. Biden also wasted no time showing the new direction he wants to take the country.

“We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities,” he said. “Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build, and much to gain.”

He signed a stack of executive orders to undo policies of his Republican predecessor -- on the coronavirus, immigration, the economic crisis and the environment. They were the first of many executive actions planned.

Even though conservatives championed President Donald Trump for using executive orders to reverse the course set by President Barack Obama, Biden’s use of executive power predictably prompted some conservatives to cry foul.

“Biden campaigned on `unity,’ but his first actions immediately reveal his true priority is the agenda of the far Left: to remake America,” the conservative Heritage Foundation said in a statement.

And there lies a real problem facing Biden and his new administration. When he  delivers on his campaign promises, he will make some Americans more comfortable and hopeful, feelings that have been in short supply the last four years, while others will be uncomfortable and angry.

To find the path of bipartisanship to enact his $1.9 trillion emergency relief  package and other legislation in the closely divided Congress, Biden will need the negotiating skills he honed during his career of legislative experience. He’ll also need to compromise at times, which likely will anger some in his own party.

But on Day One, the new president sounded the right symbolic notes:

n  ---The somber and lovely memorial of 400 lights at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool for 400,000 lives lost to the coronavirus

n  ---The optimistic, if scaled-back and locked-down, swearing-in ceremony with former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton showing bipartisan support

n  ---Performances by the incredible Lady Gaga and J-Lo; the poem by 22-year-old Amanda Gorman

n  ---The normal and sane first Biden press briefing at the White House.

All were breaths of fresh air.

After the mayhem and drama, our democratic system held. We had a peaceful transfer of power.

In his address, Biden exuded decency, calm and competence – and emphasized he and we should value truth.

“We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” he said.

Vice President Kamala Harris sends a message to “little girls and boys across the world” that “anything and everything is possible,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, said.

Biden asked every American to give him a chance and join in fighting our mutual foes – “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.”

Speaking directly to those who opposed him in the election, he said: “Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America.”

Peaceful dissent is one of America’s great strengths, he said.

Biden was right to insist on holding the inauguration outdoors, despite the threats of violence. He now needs to conquer an invisible foe, the coronavirus.

Requiring masks in all federal buildings and federal land and by federal employees and contractors is an important step. He challenged all Americans to wear masks for 100 days to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s literally the least we can do.

He also wants to expand testing and speed vaccinations. The pitifully slow rollout of vaccines is a disgrace that undermines confidence in our government.  

When most of Americans are vaccinated, we’ll begin to go about our business, the economy will recover and people will feel good about the future. We might even unify.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.





Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Inaugural hope for peace, if not unity -- column of Jan. 14, 2021


At the first presidential inauguration I attended in person, President Ronald Reagan opened his address with a nod to the peaceful transfer of power.

“To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are,” Reagan said just after noon on Jan. 20, 1981.

“In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”

Little did we know then how much of a miracle we took for granted.

I was new to Washington in 1981 and, sitting in the press section as the temperature hit a balmy 55 degrees, I was agog at the scene.

The oaths of office by the vice president and president, Nancy Reagan in her bright red coat, prayers, military bands, speeches and 21-gun salute all played out before a cheering throng that stretched from the West Front of the Capitol into the distance on the National Mall.

I fell in love with the “commonplace occurrence” and made a point of witnessing in person every outdoor inauguration since – nine in all. Arctic temperatures in 1985 forced Reagan to move his second inauguration inside, keeping me out along with more than 140,000 invited guests.

I loved the stirrings of hope and renewal inaugurations brought to the surface. Even if I preferred a different presidential victor, I was usually glad to see the joy that animated the day.

Let’s hope those halcyon days are not a thing of the past.

Like millions of Americans, I’ll watch Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration Wednesday on TV or online. The sad and chilling confluence of the novel coronavirus and credible threats of violence since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump have suspended our time-honored traditions.

Trump, who still falsely claims the election was stolen from him, was impeached Wednesday on a bipartisan House vote for inciting the violence at the Capitol, becoming the only president in history to be impeached twice.

He said he will not attend Biden’s inauguration, the first president to back out since Andrew Johnson refused in 1869 to attend Ulysses S. Grant’s swearing-in. Johnson too had been impeached, but one vote saved him from being removed from office.

Biden, the mayor of Washington and the governors of Virginia and Maryland have sent one message to well-wishers and those who have evil intentions alike: Stay home.

Trump issued a video statement Wednesday after he was impeached that didn’t mention impeachment or regret but said: “Violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country and no place in our movement.”

Our movement? At least 16 groups, some whose members are armed pro-Trumpians, have registered for protests in Washington. The FBI warns those protests as well as others planned in every state capitol this week threaten to turn violent.

Seven-foot fences have been erected around the Capitol, and tens of thousands of National Guard troops will be on duty to protect the small group of dignitaries attending the Biden inauguration in person.

Biden’s inaugural theme of “America United” sounds more aspirational than realistic, but he must start somewhere. Biden faces a monumental task as long as Trump is falsely telling more than 70 million voters he was wronged.

Americans used to understand that some of us were bound to be disappointed by a presidential contest. Defeat meant it was time to assess what went wrong, regroup and go to work – not use American flags as weapons to beat people.

The 1980 election was no picnic for incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who won just 49 electoral votes to Republican Reagan’s 489.

But Carter conceded to Reagan in a telephone call before 10 p.m. on Election Day and promised his support for the transition. At his inauguration, Reagan thanked Carter for his “gracious cooperation.”

We won’t hear anything like that from Biden, of course. Nor should we, for Trump hasn’t cooperated at all, much less graciously.

The best we can hope for is a peaceful day and week. That would be worth celebrating.

(© Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Democrats will be in charge, but . . . -- Jan. 7, 2021 column


On the surface, Democrats’ projected control of the Senate, as well as the House and the White House, seem like manna for President-elect Joe Biden and Democrats hungry for change.

Republican Mitch McConnell, who as Senate majority leader routinely dashed Democrats’ dreams, is headed for minority status, while Democrat Chuck Schumer, who has spent 22 years in the Senate imagining this moment, is on his way to becoming majority leader.

“Senate Democrats know America is hurting – help is on the way,” Schumer said in a statement.

Nancy Pelosi, newly re-elected as House speaker, set as a top agenda item for her majority an update of the Voting Rights Act with a bill named for the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. McConnell and the Republican Senate never let the bill see the light of day.  

But don’t bet your $2,000 stimulus check on the 117th Congress taking wide-ranging action to solve many of the nation’s problems.  

Yes, the third round of stimulus checks – for $2,000 each -- is a good bet, if Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who have been projected victors in the Georgia runoff elections, win in the final vote tallies.

It will be the first time in six years Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, with Kamala Harris as vice president casting tie-breaking votes. Democrats will run the committees and decide which legislation and nominations reach the floor.

Democrats and some Republicans may agree on the need for other COVID-19 relief, to beef up the fight against the pandemic and speed vaccine distribution.



Even with the Democratic trifecta, though, we’re unlikely to see a return to the Great Society years of Lyndon Johnson, with sweeping legislative accomplishments that reshape America.

Instead, the 50-50 split in the Senate likely will deliver more conflict and gridlock for the next two years, as any disgruntled senator or group of House members can bring floor action to a screeching halt.

Biden still insists he wants to work with Republicans and Democrats at every level of government “to get big things done for our nation.” As a former senator, he believes he can work with the GOP to achieve the big things, but such razor-thin majorities as Democrats hold in both houses rarely accomplish much.

Maybe Congress can follow the example of the last time there was a 50-50 tie in the Senate. That was after another contentious election – in 2000, which was decided by the Supreme Court.

Democratic and Republican leaders negotiated a power-sharing agreement that lasted a few months, until one senator -- James Jeffords of Vermont -- switched from being a Republican to an independent and caucused with the Democrats.

In the House this time around, progressives have big ideas but lack the numbers to pass them alone. They will need help from centrist Democrats, the few who remain. Archconservative Republicans in the Freedom Caucus will dig in their heels, unwilling to compromise, if history is a guide.

Biden is already getting some pushback from his own party. Progressives lobbied him to name a woman or a person of color as attorney general and are disappointed in his choice of Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, who is white and is seen as an apolitical moderate.

And don’t forget: Both parties have their eyes on the 2022 congressional elections. The party in power typically loses seats in the midterms, and House Democrats have just 222 seats at the moment, four more than a majority, so they are vulnerable.

Crucial Senate races include one in Georgia, where Warnock, filling an unexpired term, will seek his first full term as well as in the battleground states of North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  

Our nation needs to unite, but as we saw with the riots at the Capitol this week, aided and abetted by the president, we sadly have a long way to go.

The next two years will be critical for Biden to prove he and the Democrats are not only in charge but also in control.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.