Senate

‘Killibuster’: Democratic angst grows as filibuster threatens agenda

Democrats are confronting the reality that absent any seismic shifts, their top agenda items face long, if not impossible, odds in the Senate amid growing frustration with the legislative filibuster.

After achieving a unified government for the first time since 2010, Democrats pledged to go “big’’ and “bold” after four years of the Trump administration. But they are watching as their wish list of bills runs straight into a familiar buzzsaw: the Senate’s own rulebook.

Now, Democrats are vowing that the fight over the filibuster isn’t over even as their two biggest holdouts to procedural changes — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — are showing no signs of backing down from their opposition to nixing the 60-vote requirement for most legislation to pass the Senate.

“The Democrats are going to have to talk about what the next path is,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who supports filibuster reform, added that Democrats needed to have an “open debate” after months of closed-door conversations and communicating through the media and op-eds.

“Let’s stop shadowboxing. Let’s really have an open debate about what it means to keep these rules in place,” Murphy said.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) added that while there was a “risk” to changing the filibuster, “there’s risk if we let the status quo where nothing happens continue.”

The growing Democratic angst comes after Republicans on Tuesday blocked a sweeping voting rights bill, known as the For the People Act, from even coming up for debate. The move was widely telegraphed, since GOP senators were in lockstep opposition to the bill long before the vote.

But it nonetheless intensified calls from progressives and outside groups to change the Senate’s rules, after Democrats were able to unite all 50 of their members behind advancing the election bill because of an eleventh-hour deal between Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Though much of the focus of the filibuster fight has been on the election bill in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, the inability to get rid of the 60-vote threshold is having major ramifications on Democrats’ larger policy and political agenda.

To advance legislation, Democrats have the near-impossible task of getting at least 10 Republican votes to pass some of their biggest priorities, including expanding gun background checks, LGBT protections, immigration reform, voting rights and raising the minimum wage. 

“It dramatizes the importance of Senate procedure,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about Tuesday’s vote, referring to the filibuster as the “killibuster” because of its ability to quash Democratic priorities.

The GOP blockade on the election bill comes after Republicans blocked legislation to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and legislation meant to address gender-fueled pay inequity.

It’s a political reality that Democrats acknowledge sparks public and private frustration as they find their agenda effectively kneecapped by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“I believe this is just a pattern. … They are just going to continue to use the filibuster to block fundamental changes,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “I think the filibuster has to go.”

Hickenlooper added that it was “very frustrating” and predicted that Democrats would have ramped-up internal discussions heading into July.

“The process that we’ll go through over the next week or two probably doesn’t need me to lay it out or predetermine it,” he said. “But I do think that the very process of discussion … I do think it is going to point to a shift.”

Nixing or at least altering the filibuster has growing support from within the Senate Democratic Conference, and Tuesday’s setback is likely to push a few fence-sitters into the camp of changing the rules.

Schumer declined to say Tuesday whether he would take trying to change the legislative filibuster off the table or what Democrats would try to do on the Senate rules moving forward.

“We are not going to put the cart before the horse. We are going to have this vote and then we will discuss the future,” Schumer said at a press conference shortly before Tuesday’s vote. 

Some Democratic senators and progressives have thrown out a range of ideas, from lowering the 60-vote requirement to 55 votes, changing it to a talking filibuster that would require opponents to hold the floor, getting rid of the filibuster hurdle that can prevent a bill from even being debated or getting rid of the 60-vote legislative filibuster altogether.

But the headache for Democrats is that to nix or alter the filibuster they need the support of all 50 of their members.

Both Manchin and Sinema have made clear they are not budging.

“It’s no secret that I oppose eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. … My support for retaining the 60-vote threshold is not based on the importance of any particular policy. It is based on what is best for our democracy,” Sinema wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published on the eve of the election vote.

Manchin, after Tuesday’s vote, indicated that his position on the filibuster hasn’t changed.

“The filibuster is needed to protect democracy,” Manchin said. “I think you all know where I stand on the filibuster.”

Democratic senators, while careful not to personally criticize Sinema, pushed back on her arguments, underscoring the divisions within the caucus.

“If Mitch McConnell believes that he will get even the tiniest advantage from removing the filibuster in the future he will do it regardless of what Democrats have done in the past,” Warren said.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) added that she hoped Sinema will “change her mind.”

“I don’t agree with her reasoning,” she said, adding about the filibuster holdouts: “I would like them to come around.” 

But it’s not just Manchin and Sinema. Several other Democratic senators have warned that they aren’t on board with changing the rules or haven’t weighed in yet.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is up for reelection next year, declined to take a position on the filibuster Tuesday.

“Like any changes to the rules, when it comes up, I’ll take a close look at it,” Kelly told reporters.

Progressive outside groups aren’t ready to throw in the towel, with several launching ad campaigns targeting Democratic senators to try to build pressure on a rules change.

And Democrats, eager to move forward with their party’s campaign promises, are holding out hope that they’ll win over their colleagues even while acknowledging that there are limits to their own abilities to sway them.

“Well, we can’t put arms behind backs and twist their arms, physically force anybody to change her or his mind,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters.

“But I think every one of my colleagues over the last 20 years, except for a few, has come to the conclusion the filibuster is really no longer viable,” he added. “I’m still hoping — call me seemingly naive — that my colleagues will come to the same conclusion.”

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Murphy democrats angst frustration filibuster threatens agenda rules reform warren schumer murphy manchin sinema mcconnell republicans gop senate block Dick Durbin Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Joe Manchin John Hickenlooper Kyrsten Sinema Mark Kelly Mazie Hirono Mitch McConnell
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