Democrats plan to squeeze GOP over filibuster

Senate Democrats are eyeing the next phase of the filibuster fight as they plan a series of tests to try to squeeze Republicans and sway their colleagues wary of changing the Senate’s most famous rule.

As the House passes several big policy priorities, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is vowing that he will put the bills on the floor this year, setting up high-profile showdowns on President Biden’s campaign promises.

Democrats say the strategy is two-fold: It will make Republicans go on the record in opposition and could demonstrate to Democrats wary of reforming the legislative filibuster that much of their agenda will be stuck in limbo without reforms. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) pointed to House-passed bills or legislation coming out of Senate committees that unify the caucus and garner broad support as potential areas that could elevate the filibuster discussions among Democrats. 

“If Dems are all fine, then we’ll bring them up on the floor and see if we can get Republican support. I think that’s probably the next step,” he said. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), during a Senate floor speech, urged Republicans to “show us” that the Senate can pass legislation with the 60-vote legislative filibuster intact. 

“What I’m saying to those who defend the filibuster is show me that the Senate can operate with a filibuster and still do things that make us a better nation. They have to test that on the floor,” Durbin separately told reporters. 

When the chamber will shift to the next phase is unclear. The Senate is set to leave on Thursday for a two-week break, but senators are discussing their next legislative steps after passing a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill and dedicating last week and this week to confirming Biden’s Cabinet nominees. 

Schumer, asked during a recent interview on CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” about the filibuster, pledged to enact a “bold” agenda but said Democrats were willing to give Republicans “a chance.”

“We’ll put things on the floor. Because there are a number of my colleagues that say let’s give them a chance,” Schumer said, referring to members of the Democratic caucus. 

Schumer has already put the Equality Act, an LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill, on the Senate calendar. Senate Democrats unveiled a sweeping ethics and election reform bill last week, which passed the House earlier this month with no GOP votes. He’s also pledged that the Senate will take up gun background checks and try to craft a long-sought deal on immigration reform. 

Asked about the agenda once the Senate returns in April, Schumer said “there’s a whole lot of things that we want to do.”

But many of the bills don’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, which could raise the pressure on Democrats to either change the rules or set aside the big campaign promises they and Biden made on the 2020 campaign trail. 

If Democrats nix the filibuster, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is promising a “nuclear war” that would grind the Senate to a halt. For Republicans, that could include demanding roll-call votes for motions such as adjourning the Senate that are normally routine matters done in a matter of seconds by unanimous consent. Republicans could also deny the quorum Democrats need to operate the chamber. 

Progressives are short of the support needed to change or gut the filibuster. Several senators are viewed as wary, while Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are both on the record opposing getting rid of the 60-vote threshold.

It’s unclear what could change minds, though Democrats view two areas as fertile ground: voting rights and gun background checks.

Democrats vowed on Tuesday to take up and debate legislation to expand background checks in the wake of a shooting in Colorado that left 10 people dead. But the House-passed bill that extends background checks to all sales and transfers, with some exemptions, can’t get 60 votes in the Senate. 

Schumer said that he would be meeting with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and other Democratic senators to discuss the path forward but added, “We’re not going to do what McConnell did and never let a vote occur.” 

Several polls in recent years have shown support for expanded background checks to be around 90 percent. Murphy, pointing to their broad popularity, argued that if expanded background checks can’t pass the Senate, that’s a problem with the chamber.

“If the filibuster is the only thing that stops a wildly popular proposal from becoming law, then it’s certainly, it should be part of the conversation as to why the rules need to change,” Murphy said. 

Democrats are also under growing pressure to nix the filibuster specifically for voting rights legislation. In addition to a sweeping democracy and election reform bill, House Democrats have rolled out stand-alone legislation, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), to reauthorize and strengthen the Voting Rights Act. 

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told reporters that he wasn’t yet sold on changing the filibuster but pointed to voting rights as one key issue for him. 

“I’m … very concerned about what’s happening in states around the country,” he said. “So I’m weighing what these different proposals are.” 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who noted he supported reforming the filibuster, added that if Republicans block voting rights bills, “it will generate more momentum for reforming the filibuster.” 

One idea that has been floated is to create an exemption from the filibuster for civil rights legislation that could let supporters of the procedural rule technically keep it but also pass bills by a simple majority that a growing number of Democrats view as critical to the future of the country. 

Manchin, however, shot down that idea. 

“I feel very strong about protecting the filibuster as it is,” he said. “You can’t break the place.”

Tags Chris Coons Chris Murphy Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell Stephen Colbert Tim Kaine

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