The release of a series of undercover videos focused on Planned Parenthood, which show officials of the group discussing the procurement of fetal tissue for medical research, have become the focus of national politics in recent days. This has resulted in a push by many conservatives to ban all federal funding for Planned Parenthood (current federal law already prohibits federal funds from being spent to provide abortion services). Though you may have heard otherwise from some in the media, that bill, sponsored by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, did not come up for an actual vote this week in the United States Senate.
On Monday, however, the measure did face a test vote on whether to overcome a filibuster. This procedure, known as invoking cloture, requires 60 votes to pass; if it fails, the bill is essentially killed. It is not, however, the final vote on the bill itself; that would come later, after the debate and amendment process.
Sen. Susan Collins surprised many observers by voting to invoke cloture and move forward with debating the bill. Collins, however, did not vote for cloture because she wanted to pass the bill in its present form. Instead, she voted for cloture because she wanted to offer an amendment that would have maintained federal funding for Planned Parenthood chapters that weren’t involved in harvesting fetal tissue while referring an investigation into the videos to the Department of Justice.
This compromise was a reasonable offer, although had it passed, it likely would have bitterly disappointed conservatives. The failure of the cloture motion does not mean that the effort to defund Planned Parenthood is halted: it merely punts it to the fall, when it could well end up being part of the budget fight and help cause another government shutdown. This approach has been advocated by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and a presidential candidate; however, it could well play into the Democrats’ hands. That would explain why Senate Republican leadership, eager to avoid another government shutdown (especially over a divisive issue like abortion) would give Collins the opportunity to offer her amendment.
Sen. Angus King, however, voted against invoking cloture on the bill. In his case, his position was interesting not because of his position on abortion, but because of his concern about filibusters. King has long expressed concern about the abuse of filibusters in the United States Senate, noting that the use of it has risen exponentially in recent years.
Filibusters operate under the premise that any U.S. senator can hold the floor to speak for as long as he or she likes; to silence them and move on with other business requires a supermajority of 60 votes. However, in the case of most filibusters today, a senator does not literally hold the floor with a lengthy speech and refuse to yield. Instead, it is merely assumed that controversial legislation will be filibustered and so a 60-vote threshold to move on to debate is required.
King has been opposed to this kind of non-talking filibuster, and he’s absolutely right on that point. However, on Monday he abandoned this principle in order kill legislation that he — and the party he caucuses with — opposed.
Monday’s votes on defunding Planned Parenthood should not lead us to question Collins’ support for abortion rights: she was attempting to forge a compromise on a highly charged issue, as she so often does. However, what happened Monday should lead us to question King’s support for filibuster reform, as he was willing to use a tactic he once opposed to stop a piece of legislation. His was the vote on Monday that directly contradicted his previous positions, not Collins’s.