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.

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Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act To Win 2022: Go big on reconciliation and invest in Latinx voters McConnell-aligned group targeting Kelly, Cortez Masto and Hassan with M ad campaign MORE (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 BennetMichael Farrand BennetBuilding back better by investing in workers and communities Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Colorado remap plan creates new competitive district MORE (D-Colo.) told MSNBC’s “Meet the Press," referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights MORE (R-Ky.). 

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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 KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (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 TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act Democrats struggle to gain steam on Biden spending plan The Hill's 12:30 Report: Debt ceiling fight punted to December MORE (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 MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyExpats plead with US to deliver COVID-19 vaccines Growing number of Democrats endorse abolishing debt limit altogether Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (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.

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Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Pelosi on addressing climate through reconciliation package: 'This is our moment' MORE (D-Ariz.) oppose nixing the filibuster, and others are viewed as wary of gutting it entirely.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats struggle to gain steam on Biden spending plan Press: Where's Merrick Garland when we need him? MORE (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. 

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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 ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Democrat on controversial Schumer speech: Timing 'may not have been the best' MORE (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 CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas), who has teamed up with Sinema on legislation, added, “They have principled objections to eliminating the filibuster.”