Democrats Are Rapidly Evolving On The Filibuster

Key holdouts on nixing the 60-vote threshold include Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin. But the party is definitely warming to an idea that is gaining momentum.

Democrats are quickly coming around to the idea of reforming the Senate’s filibuster rules as they begin to turn their attention to other legislative priorities, including immigration, gun control, climate, infrastructure, and voting rights.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada just became the latest Democratic senator to come out in support of reforming the 60-vote threshold on legislation. A member of the establishment wing of the party, Cortez Masto chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2020 election cycle.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota similarly endorsed reforming or eliminating the filibuster in the past week, adding to the momentum.

That centrist rank-and-file Democrats are increasingly calling for a major Senate rule change is a huge deal. It shows the party itself is rapidly changing on an idea that had large bipartisan opposition as recently as a few years ago. In 2017, for example, 33 Democrats signed a letter authored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) reaffirming the rights of the minority via the legislative filibuster. Some of those Democratic senators are now opening the door to future reforms.

“It’s important we respect the rights of the minority but if you continue to see in some of these states dramatic cutbacks on voting rights... you can’t take any remedy off the table,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who signed the 2017 letter, told HuffPost on Tuesday. “But I still, perhaps naively, have hopes for bipartisanship.”

The party’s evolution on the filibuster is a growing reflection that passing President Joe Biden’s agenda will only get tougher in the coming months. Senate Democrats were able to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package by a simple majority vote using the budget reconciliation process, which is only allowed for legislation that affects spending and deficit reduction. Many other items on the party’s agenda won’t fit those constraints and will therefore require 60 votes ― at least 10 Republicans ― to pass in the Senate.

Democrats are also alarmed at the flood of laws being advanced in state legislatures across the country that would impose sharp voting restrictions and rollbacks. They view the GOP bills as a transparent effort to suppress Democratic votes in states, such as Georgia and Arizona, that helped make Biden president in the 2020 election and gave Democrats control of the Senate.

“Curtailing the despicable action of these legislatures is a necessity, and our caucus is going to have to put a tent together and figure out how to do it,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost, reiterating that “everything is on the table” when it comes to the filibuster.

Democrats could create a filibuster carve-out for voting and civil rights legislation, as Klobuchar and other Democrats have called for in order to pass federal voting rights standards. They could take less drastic steps without outright repealing the rule, such as requiring senators waging filibusters to actually talk at length on the Senate floor to sustain them, something that isn’t the case currently. Or they could decide to scrap the 60-vote threshold entirely.

“There is a tremendous sense in the caucus that Mitch McConnell has profoundly abused the 60-vote motion to close debate,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a longtime leading advocate for filibuster reform, told HuffPost on Tuesday.

Democrats have also used the filibuster while in the minority to block many Republican bills in recent years, including ones dealing with coronavirus aid and reforms to policing guidelines.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) has joined senators who are favoring an end to the 60-vote filibuster logjam.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) has joined senators who are favoring an end to the 60-vote filibuster logjam.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Of course, standing in the way of many filibuster reform ideas are moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as well as Biden himself. The president’s “preference is not to get rid of the filibuster,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing on Monday.

Manchin, meanwhile, has vowed to “never” support eliminating the filibuster. Over the weekend, he expressed interest in some kind of reforms, telling Fox News that filibustering “should be painful.” Many took the statement to mean that Manchin was opening the door to lowering the threshold at cutting off debate on the Senate floor. But on Tuesday, Manchin clarified he supported a 60-vote threshold on legislation.

“People are floating around a bunch of ideas and different things, and I said I was going to listen and entertain any of this as long as at the end of the day, you understand, the minority must have input, and it must be a process to get to that 60-vote threshold,” Manchin told reporters on Tuesday.

It will take all 50 Democrats to sign on to any rules change, so Manchin and other like-minded moderates present a key obstacle to ultimately changing the filibuster. But reform advocates are hopeful that with growing momentum in the Democratic caucus and evidence of Republican obstruction continuing to pile up, the entire party will get on board.

“I think this is progression. First, try the legislation. Second, try modifications to filibuster, then see what happens,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters on Tuesday.

“We want to bring out the bills that should pass with bipartisan support and see if we can do it, or if it gets stopped with the 60 vote,” Durbin added. “And there’s going to be the second part of the conversation, the future of the filibuster.”

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