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Conservatives are mad at Mitch McConnell over their own misunderstanding of Senate rules

Heavy hangs the crown.
Heavy hangs the crown.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

"Conservatives OUTRAGED After GOP Leader Mitch McConnell Votes 'No' to Defund Planned Parenthood"

That's a headline on the popular conservative blog the Gateway Pundit, following an earlier post titled "BREAKING: Thanks to Mitch McConnell – Democrats Defeat Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood." That view was backed up by forums and tweets from conservative activists who believe the Senate majority leader helped kill yesterday's Republican effort to deny Planned Parenthood federal funds:

Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft conceded in his second post, "For what it’s worth, if the Senate Majority Leader votes against cloture, he is allowed to bring the bill back to the floor." This is a nice way of saying, "The conservative outrage here is premised on a silly mistake, and Mitch McConnell did not really vote against defunding Planned Parenthood."

Here's the deal. If a cloture vote fails — i.e., if there weren't enough votes to break a filibuster — then people who voted in favor don't have the right to bring it back for another vote. They had their chance, they failed, and Senate rules say they shouldn't get unlimited tries. "I suppose the broader parliamentary principle here is that it would be somewhat unfair to give someone on the losing side of a question a second bite at the apple," George Washington University Senate rules expert Sarah Binder once explained to me. So the rules allow senators whose opinions have changed to motion for another vote, while those whose opinions stayed the same aren't allowed to keep filing to reconsider.

But there's an easy way around this rule: Count the votes, and if it looks like the vote is going to fail, have someone who's actually on the winning side vote no, so it can be brought up again. Traditionally, that job has fallen to the majority leader, so McConnell had to vote no on defunding Planned Parenthood.

It'd be simple enough for the Senate to junk this rule and just allow infinite reconsideration of failed cloture motions. That's effectively what happens now, given that "have one person vote no" loophole. But it wouldn't change anything. If there had been 59 votes to defund Planned Parenthood, McConnell would've been the 60th, and the measure would have passed. But there were only 53 votes besides him to defund it (54 if Lindsey Graham, who was too busy campaigning for president to vote, had been there), so him voting yes wouldn't have done any good. Him voting no, however, keeps the defunding proposal alive.

Of course, if McConnell really wanted to pass defunding, he could put together 51 votes to abolish the filibuster entirely. But short of that, there wasn't much he could do here.

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