Senate

Meet the senators at the center of the filibuster fight

Democrats face growing pressure to nix the legislative filibuster as President Biden takes an increasingly hard line against the procedural roadblock that threatens to stall much of his agenda.

Biden delighted progressives this week when he referred to the Senate’s 60-vote requirement for most legislation as a “relic of the Jim Crow-era.”

Tensions over the filibuster are already running high in the chamber, where a growing number of senators are coming out in support of changing the rules and Republicans are pledging to retaliate with a “nuclear winter.”

Democrats would need all 50 members of their caucus to deploy the “nuclear option” to nix or change the rules on the 60-vote legislative filibuster, support they don’t have now as several remain wary or opposed to reforms.

Here are the senators at the center of the burgeoning rules change debate:

Manchin

Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is in the middle of all the Senate’s big debates, including whether to nix the filibuster.

Manchin initially said during a round of Sunday show interviews earlier this month that he was open to making the filibuster more “painful” to use. The comments set off a flurry of speculation that he could support a “talking filibuster” and inch Democrats toward nixing the 60-vote requirement for most legislation.

Manchin quickly, and since repeatedly, quashed those hopes on the left by telling reporters that he does not support getting rid of the 60-vote threshold, the ultimate goal of supporters of deploying the “nuclear option.”

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

Manchin has also rejected suggestions by some Democratic lawmakers and activists to make a specific carve out for voting or civil rights legislation while keeping the 60-vote hurdle intact for most other bills.

He indicated that he’s unmoved by Biden’s shift toward getting rid of the filibuster, underscoring the uphill climb a rules change still faces in the Senate.

“I don’t think it’s a Jim Crow [relic],” he said.

Sinema

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) is one of the newer members of the Senate Democratic caucus, but she’s taken one of the hardest lines against changes to the chamber’s rules.

Sinema, who routinely does not answer questions from reporters in the Capitol, declined to comment about the filibuster in the wake of Biden’s comments.

But she’s gone on the record as recently as this month about her opposition to getting rid of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance legislation through the Senate. She’s even gone a step further by throwing her support behind reinstating the same 60-vote hurdle for presidential nominations. Democrats nixed the 60-vote hurdle for most nominations in 2013, and Republican got rid of the same rule for Supreme Court picks in 2017.

“While eliminating the filibuster may result in some short-term legislative gains, it would deepen partisan divisions and sacrifice the long-term health of our government,” she wrote in a letter to a constituent published by NBC News

Sinema’s opposition to changing the filibuster has gotten her some flak back home and a steady drumbeat of commentary from national progressive groups, who believe she is out of step with a longtime swing state that is moving increasingly toward the Democratic Party.

Coons

As one of Biden’s closest allies in the Senate, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who holds the president’s former seat, is always watched closely, including in the filibuster fight.

Coons is respected by GOP senators and has good across-the-aisle relationships. He also spearheaded a 2017 letter with GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), signed by 26 currently serving Democratic senators, urging Senate leadership to support “our efforts to preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions as they pertain to the right of Members to engage in extended debate on legislation.”

Coons, after Biden opened the door to a talking filibuster, said that he wasn’t yet sold on changing the Senate rules but was listening to proposals being thrown out by his colleagues.

He has pointed to bills across the country that would tighten voting rules as a concern but also talked up the need for bipartisanship on areas such as the minimum wage and infrastructure.

“I think the filibuster is an important part of what forces us to compromise with each other and work together here,” he said. “But I’m also very concerned about what’s happening in states around the country.”

King

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), like Coons, has long been viewed as wary about making changes to the Senate’s rules.

After Biden elevated the idea of going to a talking filibuster, King told reporters this week that he could “possibly” support it but didn’t lock himself into a position.

“I want to see what the proposal looks like. We’ve gotta see what the details are. But that may be an option,” he said.

King warned late last year that Republicans’ actions — confirming Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett days before the 2020 election after refusing to take up then-President Obama’s nominee during an election year — were only fueling frustration and calls for Democrats to change the rules once they were back in power.

King hasn’t come out in support of nixing the 60-vote hurdle. Democrats including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) also belong in that camp.

But, in remarks that quickly gained widespread attention, King signaled in a Washington Post op-ed that he could be willing to change the rules if Republicans completely stonewalled voting rights legislation.

“If forced to choose between a Senate rule and democracy itself, I know where I will come down,” he wrote.

Merkley

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is at the center of his party’s push to nix the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

After years of his pushing for rules reforms, a growing number of colleagues are starting to catch up to Merkley, who quickly set his sights on making changes to the Senate’s filibuster once he joined the chamber in 2009.

Merkley has spoken with the entire Democratic caucus over the past year as he’s tried to sway colleagues and acted as a sounding board for various rules questions, ranging from smaller changes to try to make the Senate function better to overhauling the filibuster.

“I was wrestling with whether to run for reelection. I’ve got a limited number of years of life. I could do many different things. … I thought well if I run for reelection it’s going to be because I make an all-out push to restore the Senate as a functioning body,” Merkley told The Hill earlier this month about his efforts.

Schumer

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is navigating a herculean task: Getting his party’s laundry list of pent-up priorities through a 50-50 Senate. Without a rules change, that means uniting his wide-ranging caucus and trying to sway at least 10 Republicans.

Schumer, who has been mum on whether he personally supports nixing the filibuster, is facing his own balancing act: He’s up for reelection in 2022 and progressives have sent public warnings about trying to mount a challenge to him if he doesn’t make good on the party’s big promises.

Schumer dismissed an attempt by Republicans to get a formal protection for the filibuster in the Senate’s organizing resolution and has pledged that Democrats will enact a “big” and “bold” agenda — with or without GOP buy-in.

But he’s also facing a reality where some of the House-passed bills, including on election reform and firearm background checks, don’t have the support of even the 50 votes they would need to pass if he could get his members to nix the filibuster.

“Our caucus will come together and we will discuss the best way to produce that big, bold action,” he told reporters this week. “Everything is on the table.”

McConnell

The actions, and reactions, of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) loom over any discussion about getting rid of the filibuster.

Republicans are ramping up their warning shots to Democrats about changing the Senate’s rules, with the GOP leader pledging “nuclear winter” that would grind the chamber to a halt.

“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 from the Senate floor.

Republicans haven’t been able to block a bill so far under the Biden administration, but their opposition to a slew of big Democratic priorities — including voting rights, immigration and background checks — is fueling calls to change the rules.

Democrats say McConnell, and his caucus, should show they are willing to negotiate.

“I would say to the defenders of the filibuster: Show us it can work,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Angus King Biden agenda Charles Schumer Chris Coons Dick Durbin Filibuster filibuster reform Gun reform Jeanne Shaheen Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell Senate rules Susan Collins talking filibuster voting rights

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