Meet the Make the Senate Great Again caucus
A bipartisan gang wants to nix one of the Senate’s defining features: its dysfunction.
Amid growing pressure to get rid of the filibuster — which progressives view as the cause of the chamber’s “graveyard” status — a group of 20 senators are trying to show that the Senate can still work, and potentially prevent a looming standoff over the fate of the 60-vote threshold for most legislation.
“The bipartisan group is a really good core of wanting to move the ball forward. … So if we can achieve that, I think the pressure on the Democrats to throw the filibuster out certainly dissipates,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).
The gang is the latest entry in a long line of bipartisan groups that have cropped up at crucial moments in the chamber’s history. And it could serve as a bellwether over whether it’s possible to still cut deals in an institution that has become increasingly battered by partisan headwinds.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is up for reelection in 2022, said the aim of the group was “relationship building” and to be “problem solvers” in a closely divided Congress including a 50-50 Senate.
“I think this bipartisan group of lawmakers is looking to see where we as individual members, coming together on a host of different issues, or maybe it’s not policy issues, maybe it’s rules issues. Where we can come together to kind of build consensus,” she said.
The group is discussing the potential for smaller rules changes as they look at ways that could make it easier to get to votes on the Senate floor without getting rid of the filibuster.
Those potential changes could include getting a guarantee that certain measures would get votes — such as amendments or bills that come out of committee with a supermajority of support.
“We should be having amendments coming and floor procedures and getting things to the floor,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said about the types of rules changes the group is looking at.
“Basically everyone wants this place to work again. … I think there’s a bigger percentage in the Senate, both sides, that wants something to happen,” Manchin added.
The members aren’t explicitly trying to save the legislative filibuster. But they acknowledge that their success, or failure, could impact that separate debate.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the group didn’t discuss trying to preserve the filibuster in their most recent meeting — they are trying to get together every other Wednesday — but added: “I think that would be a result of it.”
The group has 10 Republicans — the number Democrats need to break a filibuster on most legislation on the Senate floor. Democrats don’t have the 50 votes needed to eliminate the filibuster, meaning any deals that get through the Senate, for now, will need GOP buy-in.
The group has a track record of breaking stalemates.
Many of the senators were a part of the so-called 908 Coalition that provided a framework that largely mirrored the end-of-year coronavirus deal struck by congressional leadership. And some of the same senators, along with now-departed members, came close to getting 60 votes on an immigration deal in 2018 — though they fell short after intense pushback from the Trump White House.
Still, the senators have their work cut out for them.
Democrats, holding control of both chambers in Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade, are pledging to enact a “bold” agenda filled with sweeping changes on voting rights and climate change, among other issues. Patience among progressives for delaying in the hopes of getting bipartisanship is wearing thin.
It’s unclear what issue the group will take on next, with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) suggesting they could create “sub-groups” within the gang.
Capito is also one of the leading Republicans on infrastructure, one potential topic. She’s also been in touch with the White House as recently as Thursday.
“It was reiterated to me by the administration that they’re serious about wanting to have an accepted product that Republicans and Democrats can get together on,” Capito said of the recent talks.
Democrats are also eyeing using reconciliation — a budget process that would let them bypass the filibuster — amid big divisions over how to pay for the spending for Democratic priorities. The White House is considering tax increases on high-income earners and corporations that Republicans oppose.
“We haven’t firmly decided but it looks — it is likely to be the Biden plan, which is called Build Back Better which combines a bunch of things,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said during an interview on CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Other possible areas of interest could be immigration — Collins spearheaded the 2018 proposal and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the Democratic leaders on the issue, is involved in the group.
The senators could also seek to revive a bipartisan minimum wage proposal after the hike to $15 per hour preferred by progressives fell short. Another possibility is a bipartisan bill to combat China, something Schumer is interested in.
“We build relationships. People get to know each other a little bit better. We’ve got people wanting to expand, get bigger, more people want to be involved,” Manchin said.
“The appetite for bipartisanship is great. The pressure against bipartisanship is great also,” he added. “The bottom line is we have to make the place work.”