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Senators spar over eliminating the filibuster to pass Democratic priorities

Voting rights activists set for Senate fight
Voting rights activists set for Senate fight 10:36

Congressional Democrats are pursuing an ambitious legislative agenda supported by President Biden, but many of the bills that pass in the House will be stalled in the Senate — thanks to a rule that requires just about any legislation to attract 60 votes before it can be passed. Frustrated progressives are pushing the Senate to eliminate the legislative filibuster, which would allow bills to pass with a simple majority — and without any Republican votes.

In recent weeks, the House has passed H.R. 1, a wide-ranging elections and government reform bill, and the Equality Act, which enshrines legal protections for LGBTQ Americans. This week, it will vote on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, eliminating the deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and on two immigration measures — one aimed at helping undocumented immigrants who came into the country as children, and another that would give relief to agricultural workers. 

The House will also soon consider a bill which restores provisions of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court, a priority for Democrats. Republican state legislatures across the country have sought to restrict voting rights after the expansion of absentee voting during the pandemic increased voter turnout in 2020.

But most, if not all, of these measures, are unlikely to garner support from 10 Republicans. Democrats hold the barest majority in the Senate, a 50-50 split and Vice President Kamala Harris to cast any tie-breaking vote. There are some limited workarounds for avoiding the 60-vote threshold, including the budget reconciliation process, which was recently used to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan with a simple majority. All Republicans present voted against the bill, which doesn't bode well for future legislation that doesn't rely on reconciliation.

Democrats could vote to eliminate the filibuster with a simple majority vote. But given the narrowness of their advantage over Republicans, they could not afford to lose any Democratic votes, and at least two say they're opposed to ending the filibuster, Senators Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, to eliminating it.

Manchin told reporters on Tuesday that the filibuster ensures "the minority has input," and implied that eliminating it now could harm Democrats in the long-term when they lose power, saying that "what goes around here comes around here."

"Everybody's talking, there's so many different ideas out there. They're all talking. And that's it, there's nothing wrong with it that's healthy when you want to talk about everything. But the bottom line is, you can't get rid of the filibuster," Manchin said, referring to potential solutions considered by Democrats to at least make filibustering a bill more painful. "You cannot get rid of the filibuster unless your intention is to destroy the Senate."

Mr. Biden indicated that he was in favor of reforming the filibuster in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday. He endorsed a return to the talking filibuster, in which a senator has to stay on the floor and continue talking to hold up legislation. However, implementing the talking filibuster would not lower the 60-vote threshold for advancing a bill, but just make the process more arduous for the Republican Party.

Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, told reporters on Wednesday that Mr. Biden "knows how to choose his words carefully on this subject."

"I think he's acknowledging the obvious — that the filibuster has really shackled the Senate and made it far less productive. If it weren't for reconciliation, we would have little to show for this session other than nominations," Durbin said. He added that Democrats did not currently have the votes to eliminate the filibuster, but "this is a process."

"There are some who are skeptical of any change in the rules. We have to demonstrate to them how the rules can be used and abused before we go any further," Durbin said.

Other Democrats have called for a carve-out to filibuster rules specifically for voting rights bills.

"If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn told the Guardian in an interview earlier this month. "I'm not going to say that you must get rid of the filibuster. I would say you would do well to develop a Manchin-Sinema rule on getting around the filibuster as it relates to race and civil rights."

However, Manchin indicated on Wednesday that he would be unwilling to create an exception for voting rights and government reform legislation.

"No. No. No. That's like being a little bit pregnant, maybe," Manchin said, meaning that it is impossible to only partially change the filibuster.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats that eliminating the filibuster would eventually backfire on them. Once they retake the Senate and the White House, he said, Republicans would then pass their own priorities with a simple majority, like defunding Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities. And he threatened to invoke procedural rules to slow down the legislative process: he could require 51 senators to be present for all business; or hold roll call votes on measures that typically pass by unanimous consent. McConnell noted that a single senator could prevent the Senate from convening before noon, or force every bill to be read aloud before votes.

"This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change," McConnell said Tuesday. "It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup — nothing moving."

But Durbin shrugged off McConnell's threats of gumming up the works of the Senate, arguing to reporters on Tuesday that McConnell had already shown he could do so when he was majority leader.

"He has already done that. He's proven he can do it and they'll do it again, I assume. So that's a threat that, yes, we've seen it, we know you can do it," Durbin said. He had previously opposed eliminating the filibuster, but said that he had changed his mind after seeing how McConnell wielded the filibuster.

"Senator McConnell taught me that I was wrong. He managed to use and misuse the filibuster so many times that it now has stopped the Senate mid-track," Durbin said, arguing that McConnell had used the filibuster to block several Democratic amendments to legislation.

Meanwhile, the progressive advocacy group Stand Up America announced on Tuesday that it would launch a nationwide campaign to demand that senators support the elections reform bill passed in the House and pass it by eliminating the filibuster.

"Our democracy is under assault, and we cannot allow a Jim Crow relic like the filibuster to block this transformational bill," said Sean Eldridge, founder and president of Stand Up America.

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