Could Democrats Finally Be Taking on the Filibuster?

More and more are increasingly recognized that it’s the first problem needed to solve before solving all the rest.

Every day I write about politics I’m tempted to write the ten thousandth piece on why the filibuster needs to end. Then I say to myself: “Readers have heard it all before. You’re sounding like a broken record.”

But then I keep coming back to the same problem: without dealing with the filibuster problem, there’s no point to writing about almost anything else in American politics. And frankly, there’s little point in readers wasting their time reading about anything else. Yes, there is potentially some other legislation that could pass via reconciliation. Yes, there are matters of national security, international affairs and diplomacy that require attention. Yes, the Justice Department could be taking faster action against criminal wrongdoing by Trump, the far right, the financial industry, polluters, and other interests. And yes, the Biden administration could be much bolder in adopting what David Dayen at The American Prospect has called the Day One Agenda, using presidential powers to implement important reforms.

But solving the biggest problems still requires Congressional action (and ideally, if we want to preserve democracy long-term, the Legislative Branch needs to regain its equal footing with the Executive Branch). And Congress is virtually unable to function as long as the filibuster remains in place.

I can write, as I did Saturday morning, about the need to tackle regulation of Facebook and social media companies. You can read about it and make comments. But the chances of ten Republican Senators joining with a unified Democratic caucus on a legislative overhaul there are essentially nil. We can talk about the desperate need to reform our broken immigration system, but the Party of Trump will cooperate to accomplish nothing humane on that front. We can wring our hands and in fear and fury at the existential climate crisis impacting the future of human civilization and all life on the planet. But while the Biden Administration can take (and has taken) some positive steps on its own, the transformative actions necessary to contain emissions will require Congress. And once again, ten Republican senators will not be found to take even the mildest, most pathetic steps to save ourselves from an ecological hellscape. And so on.

Most crucial at this inflection point in history, the Republican Party has set itself in fierce opposition to democracy itself. All across America, Republicans are pushing state-based legislation that would dramatically suppress voting rights and limit the ability of marginalized communities to have a voice in government. Republicans know they cannot persuade majorities with their current platform, so they plan instead to legally cheat their way into permanent minority power, reinstituting a new era of Jim Crow and apartheid at the ballot box. Given the current hyperconservative composition of the Supreme Court, The only way to stop it is by a federal act of Congress. But Congressional action will not take place as long as the filibuster remains standing in its current form.

Everything, then, comes back to the filibuster.

Fortunately, it looks like most Democrats in Congress have come to this realization as well. Even Joe Manchin, the most famous holdout in favor of the filibuster in the Senate Democratic caucus, seems open to a talking filibuster reform:

When Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia opened the door this week to making it more “painful” to block legislation, some Democrats saw a game-changing opportunity to remake the Senate and lift a key obstacle to a progressive agenda.

It was a telling shift for Manchin, the most outspoken Democratic supporter of the filibuster — an apparent sign of party consensus that the rule can be softened, if not abolished. Some progressives say his idea would open the door to passing ambitious bills to bolster voting rights and gun control, which cleared the House and are headed for a fatal crash with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.

“It’s very significant,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the chief antagonist of the filibuster, said in an interview. “There’s been a tremendous sea change in the Democratic caucus, saying, ‘We were elected to solve problems, not to apologize because [Senate Republican leader Mitch] McConnell stopped us.’ That excuse will not fly, nor should it.”

My Washington Monthly colleague Bill Sher has been taking a contrary stand on this, hoping for compromise legislation between reasonable legislators in both parties and a de-escalation of partisan tensions. But it’s deeply unlikely that the authoritarian white supremacist fever on the right will be broken without destroying the possibility of their taking power through minority rule. Mitt Romney is not going to win the battle for the soul of the GOP–at least, not until the GOP is forced to acknowledge that their only path to legitimate power lies in persuading actual majorities of voters.

It may well be that senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema don’t wish to be seen as betraying their commitment to maintaining the filibuster. But at the very least reforming the filibuster in various ways, including forcing an old-school “talking filibuster” should be on the table. And even Manchin’s and Sinema’s pledges may be sorely tested if Democrats bring voting rights bills like HR1 and the John Lewis Act to the floor of the Senate, only to be mercilessly stonewalled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

There’s no way around solving the filibuster problem. There’s no way around continuing to talk and write about it. It must be addressed, because everything else depends on it. It increasingly appears that almost every Democrat in Congress now understands this, too.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.