Democrats look for plan B on filibuster
Democrats are struggling with their inability to reform the legislative filibuster, as intense pressure from activists meets dug-in opposition from within the caucus.
The latest frustration over the Senate rule comes after Republicans blocked a revised election reform bill Wednesday, marking the latest Democratic priority to fall victim to the chamber’s 60-vote requirement for most legislation.
Democrats are predicting that they’ll regroup as a caucus and try to figure out a path forward, including what, if anything, they can do about the filibuster. But they face a full end-of-the-year plate of big fights over the debt ceiling and a scramble to get a deal on a social spending bill.
“We’re going to sit down. … We’re going to talk about other strategies to get this bill passed,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “Sen. [Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] says we need to get this done by Thanksgiving and I think he’s right.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added that Democrats would “obviously huddle as a caucus to figure out what the next steps are.”
“I think it’s time to change the rules. My colleagues had a theory that the filibuster would promote cooperation on issues like voting reform; obviously, it hasn’t,” he said.
Democrats regained their first trifecta of the House, Senate and White House in roughly a decade earlier this year with a long laundry list of to-do items coming out of the Trump era.
But the filibuster has emerged as a quick, and entrenched, buzz saw against many of their biggest ideas, after talks aimed at getting the 10 GOP votes needed to overcome the hurdle on everything from police reform and immigration reform to background checks have unraveled.
Their only way around a GOP filibuster currently is through reconciliation, but there are big restrictions on what can be passed under the arcane budget rules, with voting rights an area they believe couldn’t pass muster with the parliamentarian.
That has sparked fierce frustration from outside groups, in particular, and supporters within Congress who already viewed August as a crucial missed deadline because of the release of new census data that states could use to redraw their congressional lines.
“What comes after that filibuster is a lot less clear. But there is no doubt that it will be a make-or-break moment for Senate Democrats and our democracy,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Fix Our Senate, referring to the Wednesday vote.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has spearheaded the filibuster reform discussion in the Senate for years, added that Democrats should fix the Senate so that they can “take on the big challenges” and “ultimately … pass legislation.”
Democrats have repeatedly vowed that “failure is not an option” on voting rights, and they aren’t willing to throw in the towel yet on getting voting and election legislation to President Biden this year. They didn’t, though, immediately indicate an obvious path forward that could get around opposition from the GOP and at least two centrist Democrats who don’t favor eradicating the legislative filibuster.
“We’re not going to give up, we’re not deterred, but there’s still a lot of work to do, and I think it’s really a sad day,” Vice President Harris told reporters after presiding over the failed Senate vote.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has warned that GOP opposition should not be enough to prevent Democrats from acting, quickly pledged to bring up legislation to strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act as soon as next week.
“The fight to protect our democracy is far from over in the United States Senate. … This isn’t about regular old politics. It’s not even just about regular policy. It’s about protecting the very soul of this nation, about preserving our identity as a free people who are masters of our own destiny,” Schumer said.
Schumer also criticized Republicans, saying that their decision to block debate “is an implicit endorsement of the horrid new voter suppression and election subversion laws pushed in conservative states across the country.”
But it appears likely that the voting rights legislation, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), will hit a similar roadblock when Schumer brings it to the floor. And Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who supported earlier versions of the Voting Rights Act, haven’t yet signed on as co-sponsors.
And Democrats don’t have the votes to nix the legislative filibuster, a move that would require total unity from within their 50-member caucus. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have both reiterated time and again that they are opposed to eliminating the filibuster, and others are viewed as wary, though potentially open to supporting a “carve out” for certain issues.
“That’s a delicate issue. I think that we know that there are several members of our caucus that are not going to support it,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked about filibuster reform, which he supports.
But Democrats are still hoping that they could get 50 Democratic votes for changes to the filibuster, instead of outright nixing it, though there isn’t unity on what exactly those alternatives would look like.
“I think it’s unlikely that either Sens. Manchin or Sinema will abolish the filibuster,” Kaine said. “But you don’t have to abolish the filibuster. The filibuster has often been reformed, and can be reformed again. And so there’s a number of different ideas, and we’ll start talking about that.”
In order to get Manchin and Sinema on board with changes to the legislative filibuster, advocates and some senators believe that it would be helpful for Biden to come out publicly on what he would support in order to get voting rights passed.
“I would like for him to come out and say we need to do filibuster reform, but that’s not what he’s said,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “It would clarify for some people what we need to do.”
Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) urged Biden to “finally engage in this fight in a meaningful way by doing precisely that.”
“Our time to save our democracy is running out. If President Biden cares about this as much as he professes to, he needs to act now, before it’s too late,” he added.
Biden told reporters earlier this month that changing the filibuster in order to raise the debt ceiling amid GOP opposition was a “real possibility,” but hasn’t made similar public remarks on voting rights.
Meagan Hatcher-Mays, the director of democracy policy for the Indivisible Project, said Biden “must get in the game.”
“It would be great for Joe Biden to walk out to a podium and say into a microphone, ‘enough of this,’ ” she said, “ ‘enough of the filibuster, it is not helping.’ ”