Debt fight revives Democrats’ filibuster angst
An entrenched stalemate over the debt ceiling is reopening Senate Democratic wounds over their inability to change the filibuster.
The high-stakes battle, which could lead to dire economic consequences, has thrust the longstanding Senate rule back into Washington’s vocabulary. Both White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fielded questions this week about changing the 60-vote requirement needed for most legislation to pass.
Senate Democrats, despite growing support on Capitol Hill and pressure from liberal activists, have been unable to unify their caucus over nixing or changing the rule, with the nation’s borrowing limit the latest item to run into the procedural buzz saw, which requires GOP support for most bills.
“At some point a day of reckoning comes. And some people who don’t support filibuster reform will finally say, ‘Well, we need to accomplish all of these things for the American people, and if this self-imposed rule is stopping us … we can be clear eyed and we need to do filibuster reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who favors changing the rule.
To raise the debt ceiling — without opening the door to using reconciliation, the process Democrats are using to pass a sweeping social spending bill without any GOP support — Democrats would need the backing of at least 10 GOP senators. So far, Republicans have been unified in their opposition, even after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Congress has until Oct. 18 to raise the nation’s borrowing limit or face a catastrophic default.
That stance has infuriated Democrats, who argue that it’s a sign of Congress’s dysfunction.
“This is playing fire for us to risk the faith and credit of the United States to another damn filibuster,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “As far as I’m concerned this is proof positive that the filibuster does not engender bipartisanship, it creates hopeless partisan divisions.”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) added that, “Republicans clearly have no interest in protecting millions of Americans or doing their jobs as legislators, so Democrats need to eliminate the filibuster and raise the debt ceiling.”
Nixing the legislative filibuster was once considered a fringe idea, but has increasingly gained traction both on and off Capitol Hill.
Democrats, however, face an internal roadblock to enacting those changes, with little sign of winning over their biggest holdouts.
To get rid of or change the filibuster, Democrats would need total unity from their 50 member caucus. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have ruled out getting rid of the filibuster, and others are viewed as privately wary.
“We’re not there yet,” Hirono acknowledged, asked about getting rid of or changing the Senate rule.
Schumer hasn’t publicly endorsed nixing the filibuster but argued that Democrats shouldn’t let GOP opposition prevent them from making good on their promises, including enacting voting rights reforms.
Asked if the debt ceiling stalemate changed his thinking, Schumer sidestepped the question by saying the focus should be on why Republicans are trying to force Democrats to use reconciliation.
When Psaki was asked about getting rid of the filibuster in order to raise the debt ceiling, she told reporters, “I certainly understand the question, the interest, but the president’s position has not changed on that.”
Biden, who spent three decades in the Senate before becoming vice president, has not voiced support for eliminating the filibuster.
The fight over the debt ceiling comes as Democrats have seen bipartisan talks on top priorities unravel, including most recently on police reform but also background checks for gun ownership and immigration.
That’s forced them to try to fit as much as they can under reconciliation, which allows Democrats to bypass the filibuster.
But they’ve encountered obstacles on that front throughout the year as well. Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough first nixed a $15 per hour minimum wage proposal pushed by progressives, and more recently rejected two plans that would provide millions of undocumented immigrants with legal protected resident status.
There are strict limits on what can be passed under reconciliation, leaving Democrats with limited paths forward on other priorities like voting rights.
Republicans blocked a sweeping election reform and voting bill earlier this year. Democrats then spent months negotiating behind the scenes to try to come up with an alternative, with Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Manchin and others unveiling new legislation.
Manchin has been shopping the bill to Republicans, and told reporters this week that he was waiting to see what changes they might have. But Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, cast doubt on the bill getting enough GOP votes to break a filibuster.
“I know he’s still shopping it around with some of our members, but I don’t sense that there’s anybody yet. There just aren’t any things in there … that our members could get behind,” Thune said.
Activists have long viewed voting rights as the issue that could force Senate Democrats to come to the table to discuss what, if any, changes they’ll be able to make to the Senate rules.
But it’s not clear that another setback would change the minds of filibuster reform opponents in the party. Manchin has specifically said he could not support a carve out that would exempt it from the filibuster.
Hirono declined to say when the “day of reckoning” would happen, but that it would require her colleagues to be “honest” about the state of play in the Senate.
“To see the reality of where we are with regard to all of the obstruction from the Republicans and to realize that Republicans have absolutely no plans to help us get anything done for the American people. That reality should sink in,” she said, before adding: “Apparently not yet.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the fight over the debt ceiling and a days-long battle on the Senate floor to break holds on Biden’s State Department nominees showed “how difficult the rules are when you have a minority that is using exceptional obstruction tactics.”
Asked about the possibility of a caucus discussion on the filibuster, he said: “It feels like something is coming sooner.”
“Between the State Department blockade and the debt limit,” Murphy said, “man, there is no argument right now that you can find this place that the filibuster is promoting compromise.”