Senate Republicans on Friday filibustered legislation setting up an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Though the procedural vote received 54 yeas and 35 nays, that 19-vote margin meant nothing under the peculiar rules in the United States Senate, where 60 votes are necessary to end debate.
Democratic leaders had originally sought to hold the vote on Thursday night after completing business on a separate package of tech and research bills. A late-night meltdown by a group of Republican senators pushed the business to Friday, though. It wasn’t a bad break for Democrats, allowing them showcase Republicans’ explicitly political opposition to the commission in broad daylight.
Six Republicans joined all the Democrats, or at least all the Democrats who bothered to show up on the holiday Friday to vote. Five of them—Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, Bill Cassidy, and Mitt Romney—had also voted to convict President Trump in his second impeachment trial. Sen. Rob Portman also voted for the commission. The two Democrats who missed the vote were Sens. Patty Murray and Kyrsten Sinema, the former of whom had to fly home for a family matter. Nine other Republicans didn’t cast votes.
This was a dirty piece of business from Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Although he had previously been open to the idea of a commission, he, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, had a change of heart. At first he raised some concerns about the duration and setup of the commission—which would have been split, 5–5, between Republican and Democratic appointees, with shared subpoena power. Collins drafted an amendment to address those concerns, so then McConnell just dropped the pretext and said that the commission, and what it might uncover, would be bad politics for Republicans heading into the midterms. He had to whip the issue pretty hard, reportedly calling in “personal favors” from certain Senate Republicans.
McConnell’s aggressive actions to kill the commission did piss off some of his more moderate members.
“To be making a decision for the short-term political gain at the expense of understanding and acknowledging what was in front of us on Jan. 6, I think we need to look at that critically,” Murkowski told reporters Thursday night. “Is that really what this is about, one election cycle after another?
“I guess now we’ll never know,” she said about unresolved questions regarding the Jan. 6 attack. “Isn’t that part of the problem, that we’ll never know? It’ll never be resolved. It’ll always be hanging out there.”
Collins, meanwhile, felt she had reason to be furious with both leaders. When Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the vote, he didn’t mention that he supported Collins’ amendment. This infuriated her, and she walked up to him to chew him out. Schumer did mention his support for Collins’ amendment in his remarks after the vote, though, and acknowledged that he could bring the commission up for a vote again.
But for now, he said, “this vote has made it official: Donald Trump’s big lie has now fully enveloped the Republican Party.”
This is the first time Republicans have blocked a vote to end debate on legislation this Congress, and it adds some pressure to Senate Democrats who still support the 60-vote filibuster. The most prominent of them, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, was furious after the vote.
Is he furious enough to do anything about it, though? No.
The next decision rests on House Democrats, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, all of whom have to decide whether to form a select committee, perhaps with a more partisan breakdown. She is considering it. If she does it, Republicans may rue the opportunity they missed to have the issue investigated through an independent commission.
Update, May 28, 2021: This piece has been updated to explain why Sen. Patty Murray was not present at the Jan. 6 commission vote.