Could the End of the Filibuster Finally Be in Sight?

Chuck Schumer seems to have lost his patience.

The pressure to end the filibuster is getting strong enough you can feel all way from Arizona to West Virginia. But this time the impetus isn’t coming from outside activists or anti-gerrymandering and vote suppression reformers: it’s coming from inexorable forces within Congress itself.

A series of crucial votes looms in the near future, and it’s not clear that the internal calculus of Republican Senators in the Trump era can permit a compromise with Democrats. Even less can Democrats permit an entire year and a half of legislative stalemate that not only threatens to derail democracy but would functionally disable the basic functions of government.

The immediate triggers for all this are 1) the imperiled January 6th Commission; 2) the debt ceiling fight; and 3) rising awareness that if nothing is done to curtail it, Republicans will simply rig elections in their favor and even refuse to certify their defeat even if they do lose their own rigged game.

One might ask: why now? What has taken so long, and if the filibuster were going to end why wouldn’t we have seen more action before now, when state-based GOP voter suppression effort were in high gear? The short answer is that the Biden Administration is smartly using its honeymoon period to enact crucial spending priorities that can bypass the filibuster using reconciliation. Neither the omnibus/COVID bill nor the infrastructure bill nor the American Rescue Plan require Republican support. Biden will take bipartisan cover if he can get it, but will almost certainly move on ahead regardless on the most popular parts of his agenda. In any case, there was no need to trigger acrimonious battles before getting bigger, ironically easier stuff done first.

But the January 6th Commission will likely be the first trigger that pushes Congress into phase two. My Washington Monthly colleague Bill Scher has accurately noted that for all the hullabaloo around the filibuster, Republicans haven’t actually used it yet. This is true for the reasons stated above: there hasn’t been a need. But the hostility of Senate Republicans toward accepting even the basic premises of a bipartisan commission to examine the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol has pulled a wet blanket over the hopes of optimists seeking to avoid partisan entrenchment. It is possible that Republicans are simply using hardball negotiating tactics and will eventually come to the table and strike an agreement. But it’s unlikely.

Republicans are in a bind over Trump. Trump pulled out the “missing white vote” and gave Republicans unexpected life in both 2016 and 2020. Trump’s brand is far more popular with the conservative base than is the Republican Party’s. When Trump was not on the ballot in 2018 and in the 2020 Georgia Senate runoff, GOP turnout cratered. Over half of Republicans falsely believe that the election was stolen from Trump, and supported the premise if perhaps not all of the actions of the attack on the Capitol. Trump himself is eager to avoid any scrutiny into the attempted coup. Thus, the talking points have been all over the map–ranging from trying to frame leftist activists for the rioting to dismissing the attack as a mere band of tourists. Most Americans, however, are horrified both by the attempted insurrection and by conservative attacks on democracy more broadly. Yes, Republicans would take a hit from refusing to participate in a bipartisan review of the attempted coup. But they would take an even bigger hit from their base–and from their likely 2024 nominee currently plotting his return from Mar-A-Lago–for doing it.

Democrats, meanwhile, cannot afford not to investigate it. It was most damaging assault on the foundations of American democracy since the Civil War, and the members of Congress themselves were just minutes from potentially being murdered by the right-wing Trumpist mob. Pressure will mount considerably to push the Democratic Senators still defending the filibuster (most notably Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin) to change their stance if Republicans refuse to come to the table to seriously examine the events that almost cost them not only their own lives, but even that of former Vice President Mike Pence.

But an even bigger battle looms ahead of the commission. As Dave Dayen notes at The American Prospect, Republicans in Congress are even likelier than they were in the Obama Administration to hold the government hostage over the debt limit–thereby threatening the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury. Democrats, for their part, are far less inclined to lend credibility to conservative crocodile tears about deficits or hamstring their own ability to help people or craft policy.

Everyone, including the Democrats, knows this. “Republicans clearly get religion on deficits and debt when they’re in the minority. They don’t give a crap about it when they’re running the place,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told Politico. A spending-cut compromise akin to the Obama era is unlikely; both sides are entrenched. But foreknowledge of this deficit hustle is useless if Democrats don’t take the step within their power to end this hostage-taking, at least under unified government, by eliminating the filibuster…

But the debt limit fight disrupts this. Yes, blame for the ensuing crisis can still be directed outward at Republicans. But the consequences, instead of not improving union laws or reducing health care costs, are a national debt default, something unthinkable and deeply damaging, especially when Democrats have the power to prevent it. They could end the filibuster, pass a bill to extend the debt limit suspension to January Forever, Two Thousand and Forever, and never encounter this problem again. The fiction of the filibuster sustaining bipartisanship crashes when one political party routinely threatens financial Armageddon as a political policy.

Ryan Grim is confident enough in this trajectory to predict that this is how the filibuster goes down. Grim believes that the debt ceiling will be the cue to enter Act II of Adam Jentleson’s speculative timeline for the end of the filibuster in his book Kill Switch: the flash point that will turn Manchin’s and Sinema’s Mom-and-apple-pie defenses of the filibuster into regretful reforms. There is good reason believe this analysis is correct.

But it’s important not to underestimate both small-d democratic and large-D Democratic self-preservation as motivation. Knowing that passing substantive anti-voter-suppression reforms is a key priority for both President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin put his own voting rights proposal on the table. It was rejected by Democratic leadership as too limited in scope, but it allowed Manchin to see if he could drum up any support from Senate Republicans for a compromise. So far none has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, the clown show “audit” in Arizona is likely to fuel even more conspiracies around false accusations of voter fraud, accelerating the demands of base Republicans never to certify another Democratic election victory. The Supreme Court–overloaded with the appointees of Republican presidents who came into office despite losing the popular vote–seems likely to severely curtail the rights established in Roe v Wade, which in turn will precipitate a bevy of red state legislation to restrict abortion rights. Demand will be high even among moderate Democrats for a federal legislative response both on abortion rights themselves and the extremist takeover of the judiciary.

Majority Leader Schumer seems to have lost patience, and has signaled in an unprecedented that he will do whatever it takes to pass key voting rights and other legislation. In his own words, “failure is not an option and everything will be on the table.” That necessarily means ending the filibuster. From here, it seems to be just a matter of time.

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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.