Senate filibuster fight throws Democrats’ wish list into limbo
Democrats are facing the threat of a stalled-out agenda on Capitol Hill as divisions within the party spotlight critical limits on what can get through Congress.
Democrats pledged to go “bold” if they won back both the House and Senate, but they’re grappling with dueling dynamics that throw into question what can get passed, even as they come under growing pressure to make good on their campaign promises heading into 2022.
Centrists holding out on nuking the Senate’s legislative filibuster are effectively dooming a laundry list of high-profile priorities, sparking the ire of progressives. Separately, new guidance from the Senate parliamentarian has poked a hole in Democrats’ hope of doing multiple end runs around the 60-vote hurdle this year, giving them limited legislative pathways to getting big bills through the Senate without GOP support.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged that many of the items at the top of the base’s policy wish list like raising the minimum wage, voting rights or immigration reform don’t have the support needed to pass under the Senate’s current rules.
“Well, those are more challenging. I don’t know any of those that have 60 votes at this moment,” Durbin said.
The limbo status of many of the party’s biggest priorities comes as the Senate is bracing for a three-week sprint that will only illustrate the limits of what Democrats can get passed.
Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the three-week June sprint a “busy and consequential work period.”
But while the Senate will pass a bipartisan China competitiveness bill on Tuesday, that could be the final big piece of legislation that comes to the floor with enough support to overcome a filibuster for the foreseeable future.
Schumer is vowing to hold votes this month on a paycheck fairness act that was previously blocked by Republicans and the For the People Act, a sweeping bill to overhaul federal elections. He’s also mulling votes on gun reforms and LGBTQ rights.
But all of those measures appear ready to hit a wall because they can’t get 60 votes, and because centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose changing the filibuster.
“I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster,” Manchin wrote in an op-ed published Sunday in the Charleston-Gazette Mail.
Sinema, during an event last week in Arizona, also defended the filibuster, arguing that “the way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior.”
The comment is sparking fierce progressive backlash because it effectively dooms the For the People Act, which Schumer will bring to the floor during the week of June 21.
“Joe Manchin has become the new Mitch McConnell,” Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told CNN, referring to the Senate GOP leader demonized by Democrats.
Progressives are vowing to push forward on voting rights.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the Senate Rules Committee chairwoman, said that the “fight is not over.”
“I will continue to work with my colleagues to get critical voting, ethics and campaign finance reforms passed in the Senate,” she said.
But even a scaled-back bill like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, was only able to garner the support of one GOP senator during the previous Congress: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
And the inability to get every Democrat on board with nixing the 60-vote legislative filibuster impacts a broad swath of legislative priorities on such issues as gun control, police reform and climate change.
“If we’re not going to be able to pass Senate Bill 1 on voting rights or have commonsense gun measures or take action on infrastructure and push back against climate change, all of these major priorities, police reforms and others, then if that is going to be the impediment to making change, we’ve got to change the rule,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said during a recent MSNBC interview.
The stalemate among Democrats over nixing the filibuster comes as the party is also facing limits on their ability to do an end run around it. The Senate parliamentarian issued recent guidance warning Democrats that they only had one more guaranteed use of reconciliation this year, a blow for Democrats who were hoping to get two, if not more, chances at using the special rules.
Reconciliation is an arcane budget process that allows the Senate to pass some legislation with only a simple majority. But there are big limits on what kind of proposals fit under the procedure, with the parliamentarian previously kicking out a $15 per hour minimum wage increase.
That could force Democrats to try to fit in as much as possible into the next package, including combining Biden’s $1.8 trillion families plan with his $2.3 trillion jobs plan. They are also facing pressure from progressives to go as broad as possible as they face a quickly shrinking legislative runway before 2022, with little accomplished in Washington during a campaign year.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) tweeted on Monday that he was “very anxious” about climate legislation.
“Climate has fallen out of the infrastructure discussion, as it took its bipartisanship detour. It may not return. So then what?” he added.
Biden is continuing talks with Republicans, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), on a scaled-back infrastructure package. But he’s facing growing frustration from Democrats who believe it’s time to walk away after weeks of behind-the-scenes haggling have left both sides still with big divisions about the scope and the price tag.
“The president has been very patient. And at this point if we can’t reach an agreement, we ought to consider alternatives,” Durbin said.
But to unlock their second, and potentially final, reconciliation package of the year, Democrats need all 50 of their members on board. And Durbin acknowledged that it’s not clear that they are there yet.
“That’s a valid question, and of course we need all 50 Democratic votes to make it work,” he said.