Schumer opted for modest rules reform after pushback from moderates
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) decided to push a narrow change to the Senate’s filibuster rule after moderate Democratic colleagues pushed back on a broader rules change that would have fundamentally weakened the power of the Republican minority.
Most of the public attention has focused on Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have both said they will not support any party-line effort to weaken the filibuster.
A bid to change the Senate rules to require Republicans to actively hold the floor to block a voting rights bill failed Thursday night after Manchin, Sinema and every Republican senator voted against it.
But other Democratic senators have privately expressed concerns about broadly changing the Senate’s filibuster rule and eroding the ability of the minority party to shape legislation, according to lawmakers familiar with the internal debate.
That’s why Schumer opted for a targeted change to the Senate rules instead of a broader reform demanded by many progressives that would make it easier to pass all sorts of bills.
One Democratic senator familiar with internal caucus discussions said moderate colleagues “are more comfortable with a narrow, targeted approach” to changing the Senate rules.
The lawmakers said colleagues may have been persuaded to support a permanent change to the filibuster rule but expressed clear preference for a targeted change that would apply a talking filibuster requirement only to the voting rights bill now pending on the Senate floor.
The rules change would require Republicans to actively hold the floor with debate — a grueling process — in order to hold up the voting rights bill. But it would apply only to that one bill.
Manchin and Sinema aren’t the only Democrats who don’t want to implement a fundamental change to the Senate rules.
Other Democratic senators are leery about undermining the minority party’s power to hold up legislation, though they are willing to support a carveout for voting rights legislation.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), for example, in 2017 led a bipartisan letter with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and signed by 61 senators pledging to preserve the 60-vote threshold for passing legislation through the upper chamber.
“We are united in our determination to preserve the ability of members to engage in extended debate when bills are on the floor,” he and the other senators wrote.
Coons on Tuesday said he would accept a rules “change that is as narrow and temporary as possible” in order to pass voting rights legislation, which he hailed as a landmark issue.
He argued that laws passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures to reverse measures to make it easier to vote during the ongoing pandemic had altered the dynamic of the Senate rules debate.
“We must take action to protect the right to vote in this country,” he said. “We should not make the last casualty of this dread pandemic rolling back voting access.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), another prominent moderate, has embraced changing the filibuster to protect voting rights but won’t endorse a broader change that would extend the talking filibuster to other legislative priorities.
“I think it ought to be applied to voting right … that’s what I’m prepared to support at this point,” he said when asked whether requiring talking filibusters should be a general Senate rule.
Warner signed the Coons-Collins letter asking for the preservation of the 60-vote threshold for legislation.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Wednesday also declined to endorse a more expansive rules change to cover legislation beyond the consolidated For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
“I’m supporting doing what we’re talking about doing today,” he said, when asked about whether the talking filibuster should be required for all bills, which would make it tougher for the minority party to block legislation.
Wyden’s is one of the more bipartisan committees on Capitol Hill, and if he loses the gavel, he would still have a major hand in negotiating tax, trade and other legislation if he were the ranking Democrat on the panel.
Senate Democrats are thinking more seriously about the possibility of losing their majority after the midterm elections as President Biden’s approval rating is stuck in the low 40s and doesn’t show any signs of recovering soon.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said opposition within the Democratic caucus to permanently changing the Senate’s filibuster is more widespread than just Manchin and Sinema.
“I think they’re trying to convince some of their moderates who are uncomfortable with this that this is just a one-time exception and this issue is so important that we have to do it here,” he said, referring to Democratic leaders’ argument that voting rights are so endangered that a carveout of the filibuster rule is justified.
He said other moderate Democrats are content to let Manchin and Sinema do the work of reining in the rules reform push while taking the brunt of the backlash from progressive activists who want an overhaul of Senate procedures.
“I know there are moderates over there who are uncomfortable but don’t want to be the face of it and are afraid to take on all the abuse that Sinema and Manchin have to endure on a daily basis,” Thune added. “They’re just turning loose all the attack dogs on them.”
EMILY’s List, a major funder of female Democratic candidates, announced Tuesday it would cut off support for Sinema if she refused to change the Senate’s filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation.
Other moderate Democrats support a permanent change to Senate rules to require the minority party to actively hold the floor with around-the-clock debate to block legislation, even though that means it would be tougher to stop the priorities of a future Republican president.
“I think the talking filibuster works for everything,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Tester said requiring a talking filibuster for all bills was “what I had in mind” when he signed onto rules reform.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he wants the filibuster rule reformed for a wider swath of civil and human rights-related legislation, including immigration reform.
“I’ve lost the Dream Act five times to a cloture vote,” he said, referring to legislation granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship to immigrants who came illegally to the country at a young age.
“Yes, I think in the area of human and civil rights there should be exceptions” to the Senate’s current filibuster rule, he said.
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