Tensions flare over Senate filibuster
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 Biden added fuel to the debate by saying for the first time that he supports changing the filibuster rules.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (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 Durbin (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 Romney (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 Schumer (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 Reid (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 Trump 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 Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (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.”
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