Senate

Democrats set for filibuster brawl amid escalating tensions

Democrats are setting the stage for a massive brawl over the fate of the legislative filibuster as they face growing pressure to get rid of the roadblock.

With Republicans waging their first successful filibuster attempt, and more fights looming on the horizon, Democrats are driving toward a tipping point on what to do about the procedural hurdle, which requires most legislation to get 60 votes to make it through the Senate. 

In June, a number of high-profile measures important to Democrats seem set to be blocked by the GOP’s filibuster, which supporters hope will convince wary Democrats to back ending the filibuster. The blocking of Democratic priorities will certainly enrage those liberals who already want the filibuster killed off.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) signaled that he views it as a crucial test for his majority amid growing impatience about the slow pace of some behind-the-scenes negotiations.

“We have also seen the limits of bipartisanship and the resurgence of Republican obstructionism. … Senate Democrats are doing everything we can to move legislation in a bipartisan way when and where the opportunity exists,” Schumer wrote in a letter to his caucus. 

“The June work period will be extremely challenging. I want to be clear that the next few weeks will be hard and will test our resolve as a Congress and a conference,” he added. 

The burgeoning debate is likely to be influenced by a chaotic juggling act from last week, when Senate Republicans used their first filibuster under Biden to block a bill creating an independent commission to probe the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. 

The setback, while widely expected, poured fuel on calls from a growing number of Democratic senators and progressives to change the Senate’s rules. 

“I think we should not perpetuate McConnell’s bastardization of the Senate filibuster,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) told MSNBC’s “Meet the Press,” referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

A coalition of 57 progressive groups released a joint statement arguing that Democrats could either “protect the filibuster or deliver on critical and popular policies.”

“The path forward is clear: The filibuster must be eliminated as a weapon that a minority of senators can wield to veto popular democracy-protecting bills,” the groups said. 

Democrats aren’t going to nix the filibuster because of the vote, but they predict it will influence caucus discussions by raising questions about what Republicans won’t seek to block.

“We wouldn’t change it on the commission. But the vote on the commission is very instructive to people about, ‘Alright, well we couldn’t even get an agreement on this,’” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). 

“When we run up against priorities that are really important … and they use the filibuster to block it, we’re not talking now about the filibuster in the abstract. We’re talking about, ‘Wow, the nation really needed this,’” Kaine added. 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said “of course” his own thinking on the filibuster was influenced by Republicans using it to block the commission vote. 

“I didn’t come here to do nothing,” Tester added, while noting that he hopes the Senate could find a way to function with the filibuster. 

The setback on the commission vote comes as Democrats, and some Republicans, were also frustrated by a group of conservative senators slow-walking a debate on China-related legislation, even after a lengthy committee process and amendment votes on the Senate floor. 

“None of this is an advertisement that the current rules are working,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

Those tensions — both from seeing that so-called regular order isn’t going to stop a small group of senators from gumming up the works and the commission filibuster — are only likely to ramp up as Schumer plots a June full of contentious policy and political fights. 

He is vowing to give a sweeping bill to overhaul federal elections a vote in June, as well as a paycheck bill previously filibustered by Republicans under the Obama administration. He’s also mulling bringing up a LGTBQ protection bill that previously passed the House and gun reforms amid slow-going talks that Murphy is leading with GOP senators. 

Any push to change the filibuster will set up a heated debate within the Democratic caucus, but supporters of changing the rules hope that by forcing Republicans to block bills, they can convince reluctant members to dump the filibuster.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose nixing the filibuster, and others are viewed as wary of gutting it entirely.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic senator, hinted that such members are going to start facing calls to justify why they support keeping the legislative filibuster as-is. 

“For some of my colleagues on the Democratic side, who support the filibuster in the extreme, we’re going to have to have an explanation,” Durbin said. “Look at the extreme. It is just indefensible.” 

Schumer has stopped short of supporting changing the Senate rules, only saying that everything is on the table as Democrats try to enact a “bold” agenda. But he predicted that the recent setbacks on both the commission and the China legislation might sway members of his caucus. 

“I think the events … probably made every member of our caucus realize that a lot of our Republican colleagues are not willing to work with us on a whole lot of issues, even issues where we try to be bipartisan,” Schumer said. 

But it’s not clear the dual setbacks got them closer to winning over key holdouts. 

Manchin fumed over the GOP’s refusal to negotiate on the Jan. 6 commission, issuing a rare, eyebrow-raising joint statement with Sinema urging Republicans to work with them to figure out an agreement. 

But he told reporters repeatedly that he would not change the filibuster rule over the vote. 

“I’m not separating our country, OK?” Manchin said. “I don’t know what you all don’t understand about this. You ask the same question every day. It’s wrong.” 

And Republicans appear confident that while Manchin and Sinema are frustrated, the two won’t support nixing the legislative filibuster. 

“They’ve been very firm in their defense of the legislative filibuster for obvious reasons,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “I talk to both of them a lot, and I don’t see that happening. I think they’re committed to that.” 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has teamed up with Sinema on legislation, added, “They have principled objections to eliminating the filibuster.” 

Tags Capitol riot Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Dick Durbin Filibuster Jan. 6 commission Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Jon Tester Kyrsten Sinema Michael Bennet Mitch McConnell Tim Kaine voting rights

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