Tensions are reaching a boiling point in the Senate over the fate of the legislative filibuster as Democratic support grows for eliminating the procedural roadblock.
Senators traded barbs on Tuesday, foreshadowing the likely political firestorm awaiting Democrats if they decide to move forward with reforming the filibuster — something they don’t yet have the votes to do. The exchanges came just hours before President BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE added fuel to the debate by saying for the first time that he supports changing the filibuster rules.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team McConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (Ky.) warned that removing the need for 60 votes to advance most legislation would lead to dire consequences.
“Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues: Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin, to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.
He added that Republicans would retaliate by making even mundane tasks, normally accomplished in seconds with the buy-in of every senator, “harder not easier.”
“It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup, nothing moving,” McConnell said.
Democrats largely shrugged off the GOP leader’s predictions, arguing he’s already gummed up the Senate.
“For Sen. McConnell and other Republicans to come to the floor and plead for hanging onto this tradition is actually pleading for the Senate to continue to do less and less each year. There are those of us now in control of the majority side ... who really believe there is much more to be done in the Senate. The American people expect us to respond,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters Effort to overhaul archaic election law wins new momentum Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products MORE (D-Ill.).
Biden appears to agree.
"It almost is getting to the point where democracy's having a hard time functioning," he said of the filibuster during an interview with ABC News on Tuesday.
Biden said he supports changing the rules to bring back the so-called “talking filibuster," when senators needed to be on the floor talking to block bills.
Senate Republicans are accusing their Democratic colleagues of hypocrisy for talking about reforming or getting rid of the filibuster after using the same procedural tool to block several GOP bills during the previous Congress.
“The funny thing is, I don’t recall them saying any of that over the last four years. So anything they said in the last four years, I’m happy to adopt now. But as I recall, in the last four years, they were very comfortable with the way the filibuster worked,” said Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Put partisan politics aside — The Child Tax Credit must be renewed immediately Trump remembers former 'Apprentice' contestant Meat Loaf: 'Great guy' MORE (R-Utah).
The back-and-forth comes amid growing support within the Senate Democratic Conference for reforming the rules over concerns that Republicans will use the filibuster to obstruct proposals that have the support of a majority of Americans.
Durbin, who has been involved in behind-the-scenes talks on rules reforms, offered his strongest rebuke of the filibuster to date earlier this week, comparing it to a “weapon of mass destruction” that is holding the Senate “hostage.”
“The filibuster is still making a mockery of American democracy. The filibuster is still being misused by some senators to block legislation urgently needed and supported by a strong majority of the American people,” Durbin said during a floor speech Monday.
Supporters of reforms argue that without changes, many of Biden’s biggest campaign promises are effectively dead on arrival in the 50-50 Senate. Though Democrats control the majority, they still need the support of at least 10 Republican senators to pass most bills.
Eli Zupnick, spokesman for pro-reform group Fix Our Senate, said on Tuesday that McConnell is “clearly getting desperate” as support grows for nixing the filibuster.
Democrats were able to use reconciliation — an arcane budget process that allows the majority to avoid a filibuster — to pass the recent $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill.
Democrats are also likely to use budget reconciliation to pass a sweeping infrastructure and jobs package modeled off of Biden’s Build Back Better Plan amid deep divisions with Republicans on the scope of the legislation and how to pay for it.
But without filibuster reform, Democrats will need GOP support to pass any of their other big priorities: immigration reform, voting rights, anti-discrimination measures and background checks, just to name a few.
Ideas being discussed by the caucus include everything from smaller changes that would leave the filibuster intact to reinstating the talking filibuster now backed by Biden, or gutting it altogether by putting it at a simple majority.
“I support discussing any proposal that ends the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon of mass obstruction. If the Senate retains the filibuster, we must change the rules so that a senator who wants to bring our government to a standstill endures — at least — some discomfort in the process. We need new rules that actually promote debate,” Durbin said.
Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.Y.) hasn’t tipped his hand on where he is on the fate of the filibuster. Pressed on Tuesday, he demurred.
“We Democrats ... believe we need big, bold change. We hope our Republican colleagues will work with us to produce that change. We will try to get them to work with us. But if not, we will put our heads together and figure out how to go, and everything is on the table,” he told reporters.
It’s hardly the first filibuster fight that has buffeted an increasingly partisan Senate in recent years.
In 2011, McConnell and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (D-Nev.) reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” where Republicans would limit their filibusters if Reid agreed to open up the floor to more amendment votes.
In 2013, Democrats used the “nuclear option” to end filibusters on lower courts and most executive nominations amid a GOP bottleneck. Four years later, Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate ended the use of the 60-vote filibuster on Supreme Court nominations, a move that helped former President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE add three justices to the court.
Trump repeatedly called on McConnell to get rid of the filibuster during his four years in the White House as it emerged as a roadblock to conservative priorities.
This time around, part of the problem for reform advocates is the razor-thin margin in the Senate. To go nuclear, Schumer would need the support of every lawmaker in his 50-member caucus.
But several are viewed as wary, and Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters MORE (D-Ariz.) are both on the record as recently as this month in opposition to such a move.
Manchin indicated on Tuesday that he wasn’t getting pressure from the caucus, saying they “know who I am” and that his position hasn’t changed.
“Everybody’s talking, there’s so many different ideas out there. They’re all talking. And that’s it, there’s nothing wrong with it, that’s healthy when you want to talk about everything. But the bottom line is, you can’t get rid of the shoulder.”
Asked what his bottom line is, Manchin added: “You cannot get rid of the filibuster unless your intention is to destroy the Senate.”