Top Democrats are preparing to make the case to impose new limits on the filibuster, in a move that could bring to a head six months of smoldering tensions over an expected Republican blockade of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
The Senate had its first filibuster of this Congress last week, when Republicans used the tactical rule to block a bipartisan House-passed measure to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Capitol attack perpetrated a pro-Trump mob.
Even as a majority of senators voted in favor of the commission, the bill’s defeat at the hands of Republicans deploying the filibuster underscored the ease with which legislation can be blocked under current Senate rules that require a 60-vote margin in the 100-strong chamber.
Republicans at the same time last week delayed a bipartisan measure aimed at improving American competitiveness with China, also proving to Democrats that the party was more interested in denying legislative wins to Biden than advancing bills that they helped write.
Now, in an attempt to demonstrate Republicans have all but turned the filibuster into a weapon to wage bad-faith politics, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer is embarking on a strategy to force votes on some of Biden’s most high-profile measures.
The idea is to demonstrate to Democrats opposed to curbing the filibuster – most notably West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema – that Republicans will sink any Democratic policy, giving Schumer no choice but to defuse the procedural rule in order to pass Biden’s vision.
The problem, as Democrats see it, is that Republicans have effectively rewritten Senate rules to force supermajorities for bills that carry widespread public and congressional support. Filibustering bills, once extremely rare, has now become routine.
“Will our Republican colleagues let the Senate debate the bill, or will they engage in another partisan filibuster of urgent legislation? We will soon see,” Schumer said last week, previewing his intentions.
It is a replica of the playbook followed by then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid in 2013 to gather Democratic support to impose limits on the filibuster, after Republicans blocked former President Barack Obama’s picks for cabinet posts and the federal judiciary.
But it remains far from clear whether Schumer can find the same success in persuading the holdouts in the Senate Democratic caucus to move ahead with what is known on Capitol Hill as the “nuclear option” of limiting the filibuster.
The political moment confronting Schumer is far darker than the one experienced by Reid, who by virtue of having a larger Democratic majority in the 2013 Senate, did not need to convince all of his senators, such as Manchin, to support changing the rules.
In addition, Manchin has come out publicly against making any reforms to the filibuster so often to this Congress, that he may be unable to backtrack even if successfully convinced of the need for imposing new restrictions.
Writing in a recent op-ed published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin warned that “partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy”, and reiterated he would not vote to remove or modify the filibuster.
The situation is similar with Sinema, who said during the Memorial Day recess that she would not budge on reforming the filibuster, having previously noted the perils of changing Senate rules that offer the minority party wide latitude to block action.
But with Biden’s ambitious political agenda imperiled by expected Republican filibusters, Schumer has reached the point where he believes the only way to pass bills offered by Democrats is to escalate the fight, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
The pressure is only likely to increase on Manchin and Sinema in the coming weeks, with Schumer pledging this month to hold a vote on S1, the sweeping voting rights measure expanding ballot access and controls on campaign contributions, known as the For the People Act.
In the struggle for voting rights, Democrats have rested their hopes on S1 for turning back a wave of new voting restrictions that grew out of former president Donald Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud enacted by Republican statehouses nationwide.
The political stakes, as well as the implications for the country at large, are huge: Democrats believe the bill’s passage could allow them to overrule such state-level mandates, while its failure could allow Republicans to marginalize Black, Asian and minority voters.
Against such a backdrop, Schumer’s plan has rattled Republicans. And on Monday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell railed against the planned series of votes, slamming it as a partisan ploy that is “transparently designed to fail”.
“Senate Democrats intend to focus this month on the demands of their radical base,” McConnell said.