Attitudes on the Senate filibuster could be emerging as a key litmus test for lawmakers and candidates as the parliamentary procedure hinders Democrats from passing voting rights legislation.
The abortion-rights groups EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America said on Tuesday that they would not support Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) if she did not change her stance on the filibuster. The groups’ move has sparked more speculation that Sinema could face a progressive primary challenger in 2024.
And on Wednesday, LPAC, a super PAC dedicated to LGBT and women’s rights, released a similar statement.
“Any candidate wishing to have our support in the future must fully commit to protecting voting rights; anything less will fail to earn our endorsement,” said the group, which has backed Sinema in the past.
Earlier this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) cited Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sinema’s lack of support for changing the filibuster rules as one of the reasons to potentially support primary challengers against them in 2024.
“Anybody who believes in American democracy has got to vote to enable us to go forward with 50 votes to suspend the filibuster, at least on this vote,” he said. “I hope we have 50 votes. If we don’t, they’re going to have to go home and explain to their constituents.”
Sinema’s Arizona colleague, Sen. Mark Kelly (D) — who is up for reelection in November — has taken a different path, announcing on Wednesday that he supports changing the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.
While no Senate primary has taken place yet this year, the statements from the groups appear to be setting a precedent that Democratic candidates may be subject to as the debate over the future of the filibuster consumes Washington.
“Step one is potentially a Democratic primary,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “There are always issues that mold and shape and define the depth and the width of the primary, and I think in this case this could be one of them going forward.”
Senate Democrats on Thursday proved unsuccessful in their bid to change the filibuster after Sinema and Manchin voted with Republicans to oppose the changes.
A change to the rules would have done away with the hurdle requiring 60 votes to move the legislation forward. Under the Democrats’ plan, a “talking filibuster” would have been put in place, and the legislation’s final passage would only require 51 votes after opposing senators could no longer hold the floor.
“Given what happened in the Senate, I think Senate rules reform, filibuster reform is going to be a top litmus test for a lot of different groups,” said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director for the progressive Our Revolution.
“What people are starting to see is that we cannot win on any of our issues unless we reform the way the Senate works,” he continued.
Failure to change the legislation is viewed as a major setback for the Biden administration ahead of the midterm elections. The White House and Senate Democrats pivoted toward voting rights legislation at the end of December after Manchin said he refused to support the Build Back Better Act in its current form.
There is still questions about how voters will react to Democratic groups’ emphasis on filibuster reform. The parliamentary procedure is generally seen as wonky and unfamiliar to voters outside of political circles. Democrats say they must draw the line between the filibuster and how they say it’s hindering their agenda.
“I don’t think voters care about procedural maneuvers,” said Joe Dinken, campaigns director at the progressive Working Families Party. “I think voters care about results, and hiding behind procedural maneuvers like this that end up blocking achieving the results is very disappointing.”
Democrats also argue that changing the filibuster plays an important role in passing voting reform, which they say directly impacts one of the party’s key voting blocs: Black voters.
Civil rights advocates point to the numerous times the parliamentary procedure was used to try to block civil rights legislation in the past, including in 1964 when then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Thurmond spoke for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes on the Senate floor.
Thurmond’s maneuver failed to block the passage of the bill, but others have used the filibuster to block civil rights legislation.
“When you think about historically how the filibuster has been used as a weapon of mass political destruction and distraction, I think people don’t want to make the mistakes that they’ve made previously in history,” Seawright said.
Establishment Democratic groups and committees have been mum on how feelings on the filibuster will play out in future primaries. However, instead of zeroing in on Manchin and Sinema as a reason for Biden’s legislative setbacks, Democrats are hitting back at Republican attacks.
On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) sent a memo to state parties accusing the GOP of having “no agenda,” echoing similar remarks from Biden at a press conference on Wednesday. The DNC specifically cited how no Republicans voted for Biden’s American Rescue Plan and how a majority of Senate and House Republicans voted against the bipartisan infrastructure package.
While the procedure’s role in Democratic primaries has yet to be determined, Democrats will likely use Republicans’ use of the procedure to hit them in the midterms.
“Generally speaking, when people think about what’s holding up progress to improve their quality of life, one or two improve their ability to be able to decide who is making decisions about their lives, their communities and their families, and if the filibuster is the political stop sign that is being put up by some elected officials, I think there’s going to be a measure of accountability,” Seawright said.