Barack Obama wants to kill the Senate filibuster. Joe Biden says he’s open to abolishing it too if it means advancing his governing agenda.
But the reality that’s emerging on Capitol Hill even as the stars appear to be aligning for a possible Democratic sweep in November is that some of the party’s most important senators aren’t quite there — yet.
In interviews outside the historic Senate chamber on Tuesday, several Democrats said they would not vote to eliminate what Obama calls the “Jim Crow relic” requirement that a supermajority of 60 votes must coalesce behind a bill for it to pass the procedure-bound chamber.
Others insisted they remain on the fence even while acknowledging the filibuster would make it harder if they win the majority in 2020 for Democrats to pass a long legislative wishlist on everything from climate change to gun control and health care — the kinds of issues that have long drawn fervent Republican opposition.
“No, I would not vote to eliminate the filibuster,” Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said. “That’s not what the Senate is about.”
Killing the rule, Manchin added, would reduce the upper chamber to a “glorified” version of the majority-rules House of Representatives.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein also cannot be counted on by those wishing to get rid of the rule. The California Democrat who ranks as the fifth longest-serving senator in a chamber that prides itself on precedent told Insider the filibuster gives all of the country’s voters an important say in whether any legislation is passed.
“I think it’s a part of Senate tradition, which creates a sobering effect on the body, which is healthy,” Feinstein said in an interview.
The Senate filibuster is legendary for making it difficult to move legislation through a chamber where the difference between the majority and minority parties in recent years has been just a handful of seats. It’s been the sticking point stalling many big legislative lifts too, like police reform and a border wall during the Trump era and Obama’s losing efforts to enact laws capping greenhouse gas emissions and controlling guns.
Still, some of the senators interviewed Tuesday said they remain reluctant to take a position on eliminating the 60-vote threshold. A few cautioned though that they could change their minds if the GOP repeated the same playbook used during the Obama years to block another Democratic president’s priorities.
“I suppose Republican intransigence could ultimately provoke me to that,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, adding that it’s premature to make a decision now.
To change the rules, Senate Democrats would need a simple majority of 51 votes to end the filibuster. Assuming no Republican would back that move if they were in the minority come 2021, that means Democrats can’t afford to lose that many of their own when pressing ahead on such a historic change.
Democratic power brokers leaning toward repeal
Obama called on Democrats to eliminate the filibuster if they won the Senate and the White House last week while delivering the eulogy for civil rights icon John Lewis in Atlanta.
The former president said that if politicians wanted to honor Lewis they’d work to pass bills to protect voting rights, make Election Day a national holiday, and guarantee every American has equal representation.
“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.
Even before Obama’s recent remarks, Democratic leadership had already floated the possibility of doing away with the rule. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee and himself a former six-term senator from Delaware, told reporters last month that he was open to eliminating the filibuster if Republicans made it difficult for him to move his agenda.
“It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they [Republicans] become,” Biden, who previously supported the filibuster, said. “But I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is positioned to take the helm of the chamber if Democrats reclaimed the majority, has also signaled that he could move to strike the filibuster. “Nothing’s off the table,” the New York Democrat told reporters last month.
Schumer’s office reiterated those comments when asked Tuesday about changing the Senate rules in 2021 if he’s the new majority leader. But based on the number of reluctant Democrats Insider contacted this week, Schumer may not have enough votes to kill the filibuster within his own party.
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said some Democrats may be cautious about killing the filibuster for fear of Republicans using the same tactic whenever they next reclaim the majority.
In 2013, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada eliminated the filibuster for most of Obama’s presidential nominees after Republican opposition meant many key government positions went unfilled.
The unintended consequence was that his successor, Sen. Mitch McConnell, has used that leeway to quickly confirm President Donald Trump’s appointees, while also reshaping the judiciary by confirming more than 200 conservative federal judges, a historic number that could have ramifications for decades.
McConnell also expanded Reid’s move in 2017 to include the Supreme Court, paving the way for the lifetime appointments of both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Sen. Chris Coons, a moderate who now holds Biden’s Senate seat from Delaware, said he favors negotiations with Republicans before the party leadership institutes a rule change that allows it to jam bills through the Senate.
“I have long spoken in defense of the filibuster,” Coons said. “What I’ve said was it — and this is very hypothetical — if Joe Biden is the president, if there is a Democratic majority, I won’t stand by for four years, and allow every effort to make progress to be blocked.”
“That means,” Coons added, “if these hypotheticals come to pass, there will have to be some negotiations about how we work together to make progress.”
‘You should never change a rule just to change a rule.’
Several Democrats such as Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan said on Tuesday they were focused on winning the Senate in November and that they would “wait and see” on the filibuster question.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine acknowledged the 60-vote requirement would make it harder for Democrats to pass their priorities. But Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate also said changing the filibuster is not a priority among the Virginians he talks to.
“My constituents never ask me about the Senate rules; they just asked me about minimum wage, the Equality Act, and doing something to deal with background checks,” Kaine said. “So it’s just not an issue… you should never change a rule just to change a rule.”
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said he favors reforming Senate procedure. But he wouldn’t elaborate on how that happens.
“I don’t think that it’s consistent with the preservation of American democracy as it’s used today,” Murphy said. “There are lots of different possibilities to reform the filibuster…I think we need to focus on the elections first and then see where we are.”
For the party’s left wing, the prospect of winning control of both chambers of Congress and the White House means a legitimate shot at passage of some of the boldest ideas discussed during the Democratic primaries of 2020, where Biden emerged from a pack on more than a dozen contenders.
“If Mitch McConnell is going to continue to block everything that a Democratic president tries to pass the way he did with Barack Obama,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat and former presidential candidate, said in an interview, “then it will be time to get rid of the filibuster.”