Democrats grapple with faltering filibuster pushSeptember 15, 2021
Anti-filibuster advocates are preparing a last stand to gut the Senate’s supermajority requirement by spotlighting a sweeping Democratic election reform bill. Their chances aren’t looking good.
The effort is uphill and potentially impossible, given several Democratic moderates' entrenched opposition to changing the 60-vote requirement for most legislation. All 50 Democratic votes would need to get on board for a change to the Senate rules, and Sen. Joe Manchin said on Tuesday that he’s focused on finding 10 Republican votes for a new elections compromise that he helped shape.
“I’m not talking about that at all," the West Virginia centrist said of potential rules changes after addressing the question countless times amid rising opposition to the filibuster in his party. Manchin even met with GOP leader Mitch McConnell to pitch his elections bill on Tuesday afternoon and said afterward that the filibuster didn’t come up.
And as Democrats’ long-running internal debate over the fate of the filibuster nears its decisive moment, some in the party want to press pause on what could be a messy fight over the Senate’s rules until other must-pass matters advance, given their thin majorities in the House and Senate. That sentiment was borne out by interviews with more than a dozen Democrats on Tuesday.
But some of Manchin's caucus colleagues are unsure when he and other leery moderates will be ready for that conversation, if ever. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close ally of President Joe Biden, said of the filibuster debate that could antagonize Manchin and others: “Let’s not get there yet.”
“We’ve got other stuff that’s got to happen. Like, right now," Coons said, citing Democrats' hopes to land a triple axel by getting a bipartisan infrastructure deal through the House alongside a multitrillion-dollar party-line spending bill. “The fight over voting rights and the filibuster is not coming to a head next week. It is coming to a head in the coming weeks if there’s no receptivity at all in the Republican [conference].”
While Senate progressives have pushed for months to nix the legislative filibuster, even those in favor of the idea aren’t publicly calling for an immediate intraparty showdown on the issue. Democrats privately acknowledge that the push for a major rules change isn’t likely to succeed at the moment, given hesitance from several members of the caucus.
“I’d like to get rid of the filibuster, sure,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). Even so, she added, “people are not particularly prepared to talk about filibuster reform before we even have figured out that all 50 of us are on the [same] page” on the party-line social spending plan.
Such pessimism from the left comes after outside groups have spent months touting Democrats’ voting rights bill as the legislative vehicle to kill the Senate's 60-vote threshold. Many Democrats argue that opposition from Senate Republicans shouldn’t stop the bill from becoming law. Their voting compromise bill is unlikely to receive any GOP votes, let alone 10.
One of Manchin’s closest Republican allies, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, on Tuesday reiterated her reluctance to joining Democrats’ bill: “I don’t see why a state that’s doing a great job making it easy to vote should have its laws overturned by the federal government.” McConnell also panned the effort and said Republicans would not support the Manchin-backed compromise, which creates new federally mandated voting rules and requires more politically active groups to disclose their donors.
That means Democrats are on an unavoidable fast track to a final filibuster reckoning as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer prepares a likely-failed vote on the Manchin-backed legislation as soon as next week.
The Democratic caucus has yet to fully hash out their feelings on the Senate’s rules, and the party is itching for some closure over a matter that’s been hanging over them the entire Congress. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) predicted that when the elections bill comes to the floor, “you’ll probably have a whole airing of views” on the filibuster.
The ramifications of the Senate rules are far more sweeping than just voting rights and promise to dictate Democrats’ success on issues from gun safety to immigration to raising the minimum wage to abortion — all of which struggle to generate the kind of bipartisan support the Senate’s infrastructure bill created last month when it passed with votes from 19 Republicans.
“We have an ongoing conversation about the filibuster in one form or another pretty much every day,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “It’s the cloud that hangs over everything we’re trying to do.”
Democrats are trying desperately to devise a workaround that could appeal to Manchin and other moderates wary of changing the rules and seeing massive partisan swings when Senate control changes hands. One proposal under discussion among some Democrats is eliminating the first of two required supermajority votes in the chamber, which formally opens debate on legislation, with some reasoning that a second 60-vote threshold to close debate is sufficient.
Others want to at least make the GOP hold the floor if it wants to filibuster a Democratic bill, or create a filibuster carve-out for legislation. Many progressives, of course, want to scrap the 60-vote threshold entirely.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has led the discussions surrounding Senate rules changes, but Democrats have yet to coalesce around a single idea. Merkley said Tuesday after Manchin’s entreaties to Republicans fall through, Democrats will be more ready for the debate.
Making matters more complicated, Biden is not weighing in with specifics on whether he supports the 60-vote threshold, though he said earlier this year he’d support some type of Senate rules reform. And time is of the essence: If Republicans take back either chamber of Congress next year, any changes to the legislative filibuster will be moot.
Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have been the most vocal proponents of keeping Senate rules intact, and Manchin has made clear he does not support an exception, even if it’s just for voting rights. But there are plenty of other skeptics in the caucus.
“There’s some thinking that there may be ways to change the filibuster that would allow us to move something forward,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “I haven’t made a commitment to support anything yet.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who participated in the working group that developed the compromise elections bill, didn’t explicitly say he’d back a carve-out for voting rights. Yet he seemed to open to a discussion, whenever it actually takes place: "It’s the most important piece of legislation we have to deal with. So I think all remedies are on the table.”
Yet without Manchin's buy-in, a debate over the rules is toothless. Manchin said McConnell didn't even ask him for a commitment to preserve the filibuster during their Tuesday meeting.
"Everybody pretty much knows where everybody is on those issues," Manchin said.