Democrats near pressure point on nixing filibuster
The Senate is threatening to box in President Biden and congressional Democrats, who pledged to enact a bold agenda if given power.
With the House passing a slate of big bills and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowing to give them a vote on the floor, Democrats are quickly barreling toward a pressure point on whether to nix the legislative filibuster.
Without structural changes in the Senate, progressives warn that many of Biden’s big campaign promises are effectively doomed.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), asked about the progressive criticism, acknowledged, “There’s truth to it.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve reached that point. And if enough members in the Senate agree, we’ll change the rules,” Durbin said.
The filibuster has come back in the spotlight after the parliamentarian ruled recently that an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour didn’t comply with rules governing what could be included in the coronavirus legislation.
But there are bigger tests awaiting Senate Democrats as the House sends them a growing number of bills that likely can’t pass with the filibuster intact and wouldn’t meet the requirements of being squeezed into reconciliation.
Just this week, the House passed a sweeping election and ethics reform bill and police reform legislation — neither of which can get 60 votes in its current form. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has lambasted the first, known as H.R. 1, and the second gets rid of a legal shield for police officers, known as qualified immunity. That’s considered a non-starter for most Republicans.
Schumer has also put the Equality Act — a sweeping civil rights bill that expands protections in education, housing, employment and more to LGBT people— on the Senate calendar, a first step to giving the bill a vote.
Schumer, during a weekly press conference, pledged that the Senate would no longer be a “graveyard,” but asked if he was willing to nix the legislative filibuster if Republicans blocked bills, he demurred.
“The bottom line is … we’re going to come together as a caucus and figure out a way to get the bold action the American people demand. But we will put bills on the floor. That’s the huge difference between McConnell and us,” Schumer said.
Part of the problem for supporters of nixing the filibuster is that they don’t currently have the votes among Senate Democrats to do it.
A handful of other senators are viewed as wary of nixing the legislative filibuster. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are on the record against getting rid of it, positions they both reiterated as recently as this week.
But Democrats are betting the calculus within the caucus changes as they bring up big priorities for the party and Republicans block them from getting the 60 votes needed to overcome initial procedural hurdles.
“When they come to understand the futility of what we’re engaged in. We can’t even consider serious issues because of the Senate rules, and they have a different point of view,” Durbin said, asked what it would take to get Manchin and Sinema to a different position.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is viewed as a key vote on potentially nixing the filibuster, told HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” that the filibuster was now being used to “stonewall” legislation rather than promote bipartisanship.
“I think we do need to go back and take a look at it. But I think we ought to give this Congress a chance to screw up before we change it,” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who hasn’t explicitly come out in favor of gutting the legislative filibuster, predicted that if Democrats try to bring up bills and Republicans routinely block them, that will change the dynamic within the caucus.
“I think if you have an abstract discussion about should we change Senate rules, there’s a lot of people that just aren’t particularly passionate about that discussion. But if we start to get faced with a situation that bills we have repeatedly promised to our voters … and then we find that Republicans want to block it, then we’ll have to ask ourselves what’s more important, keeping the promises that we made or some artificial Senate rule?” Kaine said.
Kaine added that if the bills were blocked and never passed because of GOP opposition and the Senate rules, it would be Democrats who would face backlash from voters in 2022.
“I think voters — I think they will hold it against the majority, if the majority doesn’t do what we said we would do,” he said.
There’s growing support within the caucus, even as recently as this week, for nixing the legislative filibuster in order to pass key priorities, building pressure on Schumer and Biden.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and to be honest I started out believing we should keep the filibuster. … But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the filibuster has long been the enemy of progress. In fact, it’s been a highly effective tool to thwart the will of the people,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) wrote in a Facebook post this week.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who had previously expressed an openness to cutting the filibuster, also told Mother Jones after the House’s passage of H.R. 1 that “I would get rid of the filibuster.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has long supported filibuster reform, said during an MSNBC interview that while the caucus didn’t currently have the votes to get rid of the filibuster, it could potentially reform it.
“One of the reforms we’re thinking about when it comes to the filibuster is just going back to the old days and saying if you want to stop something from passing then you actually have to sit on the floor, you actually have to give speech after speech,” Murphy said.
But to nix or reform the filibuster, Democrats would need every senator in their 50-member caucus and Vice President Harris. It’s not clear if growing support from colleagues or even the prospect of entrenched opposition will sway the caucus’s biggest opponents to getting rid of the rule.
Manchin, during a series of interviews on Sunday, reiterated his opposition to getting rid of the filibuster altogether.
But in remarks that quickly caught the attention of reform advocates, Manchin signaled an openness to making it more “painful” to use the procedural roadblock, including potentially looking at talking filibusters that require opponents to be physically on the floor.
“If you want to make it a little bit more painful, make them stand there and talk. I’m willing to look at any way we can,” Manchin told “Meet the Press.”
“But I am not willing to take away the involvement of the minority,” he added. “I’ve been in the minority.”