WASHINGTON — Some moderate Democrats are warming to calls to change or eliminate Senate rules that require 60 votes to pass most legislation, as progressive priorities passed by the House on voting rights, police reforms and LGBTQ protections are stalled by a Senate Republican minority.
The filibuster, which originally allowed one senator to hold up legislation by speaking on the floor until 60 senators vote to end debate, has become so commonplace that many bills aren’t even brought up for a vote if they don’t have that level of support. The practice gives the minority power to block measures that are broadly popular.
Now Democrats like Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both of Minnesota, are more publicly joining calls to change the rules. Even West Virginia’s Joe Manchin now says the filibuster should be much harder to use, though he reaffirmed his position of not wanting to eliminate it altogether.
“It’s part of who we are as a Senate,” Manchin said on “Fox News Sunday.” Yet invoking it “should be painful. It really should be painful, and we’ve made it more comfortable over the years.”
Removing the filibuster would carry considerable risks for Democrats the next time they’re in the Senate minority, which could happen after 2022 midterm elections -- or even sooner if a Democrat from a state with a Republican governor were to leave for whatever reason. The Democratic caucus currently includes 50 senators in the 100-member chamber, giving them the slimmest of majorities with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.
Making the filibuster more difficult to use would encourage Democrats and Republicans to work together more, Manchin said, suggesting that making someone actually stand up to speak on the floor would make the process more rare.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Minnesota’s Smith, previously opposed eliminating the filibuster but are now in favor.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and to be honest I started out believing we should keep the filibuster,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post Thursday. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the filibuster has long been the enemy of progress.”
Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, last week called for eliminating the filibuster, a move that could aid passage of Democratic-backed proposals like a rewrite of voting rights law. The House last week passed a broad overhaul of the electoral process, including campaign finance and balloting, but the measure has no chance of getting 60 votes in the Senate.
Some Senate votes aren’t subject to a filibuster. Democrats in 2013 eliminated it for most executive branch and lower court nominees as Republicans obstructed then-President Barack Obama’s picks. Republicans changed Senate rules to expand that to Supreme Court nominees in 2017, and under President Donald Trump confirmed three justices to the nation’s top court.
Some budget-related legislation can pass with a simple majority via a process called reconciliation. Democrats used that maneuver on Saturday to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion virus relief package with no Republican votes -- although it meant leaving out a minimum wage increase that the Senate parliamentarian ruled was not primarily fiscal in nature.
Biden, a senator for 36 years, has been reluctant to push for changes to the chamber’s rules and traditions. His administration has tried to make a case directly to the American people for his policies, said White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, hoping that would make it easier for some Republicans to support his proposals.
“His preference is not to end the filibuster,” Bedingfield said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He wants to work with Republicans, to work with independents. He believes that we’re stronger when we build a broad coalition of support.”
It would take all 50 senators in the Democratic coalition to change the chamber’s rules with Harris breaking a tie, and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, like Manchin, has said she won’t end the filibuster. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t publicly supported ending, it although he’s said he’ll watch to see how much Republicans obstruct.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said last week that when colleagues like Manchin or Sinema “come to understand the futility of what we’re engaged in,” they may have a different point of view.
Progressive lawmakers and outside groups are putting pressure on the holdouts, arguing that the party will lose its majorities if it can’t deliver on campaign promises because of arcane Senate rules. Although Democrats promised to hold a vote on the $15 federal minimum wage provision that was stripped out of the virus relief bill, that too would need 60 votes under current rules.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a leading advocate for the minimum wage increase, and has said that unelected Senate officials shouldn’t have the final say on what needs a 60-vote majority to become law when Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House.
The current Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, was appointed in 2012 by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.
“We cannot continue to have a minority who are obstructing what the American people want,“ Sanders told MSNBC on Friday. “So count me in as somebody who believes the majority should rule in the Senate so that we can begin doing the business of the American people.”
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