Filibuster Reform discussions quiet on capitol hill

Even Filibuster Reform Talks Are (Mostly) Stalled on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Demands for filibuster reform were deafening in the nation’s capital earlier this year. But they’ve gotten quieter of late, especially as progressives were at the negotiating table on the party’s economic agenda — a rare seat for them, and one they eventually flexed, showing party leaders the immense power they can wield. 

But just last month, a new voice joined the subdued filibuster reform chorus, calling out to “fundamentally alter” the once-sacrosanct-Senate rule. 

Unlike the younger progressives who made filibuster reform en vogue, the most recent voice to join this Democratic filibuster piñata party is from a man who was just recently one of the filibuster’s greatest advocates. President Joe Biden has been a fierce opponent of proposed filibuster reforms,  mostly because he served in the Senate for 36 years. 

But Biden’s patience with this GOP had seemingly ended. Many in the Democratic Party have been trying to keep the debate focused solely on voting rights, or the lack thereof. 

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“It makes sense,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) told The News Station at the Capitol. “When [Senate GOP Leader] Mitch McConnell can do it to put three people on the Supreme Court for the rest of their lives, we ought to be able to do it to guarantee the right to vote.”   

Kildee is the Chief Deputy Whip of the House Democratic Caucus, which means he plays a key role in Pelosi’s House operations. For the fifth-term lawmaker, the filibuster debate doesn’t end at voting rights, as it does for many more moderate Democrats who only recently endorsed reforming the rule. 

As a proud member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Kildee lambasts the filibuster in a way that makes old-school senators shudder — in a way most House members have always looked at the Senate rule responsible for tying up their fast-paced House schedule.  

“I think the filibuster is anti-democratic. It’s dangerous,” Kildee said. “There’s no justification for it. The framers of the Constitution were pretty bright. They figured out how to make it hard for us to get things done — we don’t need to give them any help.”

The Filibuster Wasn’t — and Isn’t — the Holdup 

After Biden signaled a change in his opposition to filibuster reform, reality struck over these past few weeks. The problem with passing the president’s agenda wasn’t the slimness of the Democrats’ Senate majority or the opposition party. Not two weeks after hinting at being open — to either slight or sweeping filibuster reforms — the problem that landed on Biden’s historic desk came from within his own party. 

Thus the filibuster didn’t matter. That realization wasn’t lost on many in the party.  

In an about-face, many of the once-loudest proponents of filibuster reform in Congress were rendered unusually quiet, in part because just getting the $1 trillion infrastructure proposal passed proved an unexpectedly heavy lift. 

The same two causes of that delay — Sens. Kristen Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) — are also contributing to this newfound silence on the filibuster as the party now desperately tries to pass the other half of their economic agenda..

After all, killing the filibuster doesn’t matter if the Democrats can’t even corral their own members to give them a 50-vote-plus-Kamala-Harris majority on a single bill.

It’s the dawning of a new day in the Democratic Party, as senior Democrats are realizing their party’s sweeping agenda isn’t really being blocked by a filibuster-wielding Mitch McConnell or any other GOP senator. 

It remains unclear what the White House plans are though they’d hinted in late October that a presidentially-sponsored filibuster reform would be coming soon. 

Biden’s supposedly forthcoming actions are, however, months late: the wave of calls for overhauling the filibuster were cresting in the spring, when voting rights groups penned letters and protested. Only the gun-reform group Brady United waited until October to launch its campaign, “The Filibuster is Killing Us.” 

Democrats are the Biggest Road Block Democrats Face

In reality, though, what now stands between Biden and the Democrats and their coveted progressive legislative wins are two Democrats. 

“Nobody in the House of Representatives has control over what Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema is gonna do,” Rep. John  Larson (D-CT) told The News Station. “We just don’t.”

The 12-term congressman is a trusted ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden — and was visibly frustrated after Biden’s economic package was temporarily hijacked at the end of October.  

Nobody deployed a filibuster that day because nobody needed to; rather, they just employed their constitutionally-mandated power as senators to merely threaten to vote against it.

Get Lit.

Former-Sen. Biden intimately knows the power of his old chamber — which is why the president publicly courted the two recalcitrant senators who he desperately needs to win over if he hopes to transform the next tranche of his prized economic package from a white paper to official U.S. policy. 

“The disappointing thing is that the president came and asked for our support, and we didn’t provide it ,” Larson bemoaned. 

“I’m old school,” Larson added. “He did it in good faith. He came to us, and there’s nothing about his character or anything that he’s ever done that isn’t anything but good faith and trust.”

That same evening, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) summed up the math this way. 

“We have no margin. That’s what’s going on,” Jayapal told The News Station of Manchin and Sinema’s ability to stymie their own party’s agenda. 

She refused to say whether the two ought to be primaried from the left for their actions when asked by TNS.

A Historical Error, or an Error of Historical Proportions?

The idea that the filibuster needs eliminating to pass a party’s agenda was always a bit of political theater, according to advocates for a functioning U.S. Congress.  

“The filibuster is kind of a red herring,” Bruce Bond told TNS. “Within the Beltway, what’s the right way to govern? The right way to govern, you know, is [seen as] kind of scorched Earth: ‘Let’s ram through our agenda.’”

Bond and Erik Olsen co-founded Common Ground Committee, which they call “a zealously nonpartisan” anti-polarization group. Biden’s inaugural pleas and promises to govern from the middle was music to their ears.

But Biden’s recent step towards endorsing a filibuster overhaul is almost breaking their wonky hearts. 

“We’re seeing him start to slide down the other slope there and, to us, it’s concerning,” Bruce told The News Station. “He really thought that he was somebody who had always worked well across the aisle, and that was going to be a strength of his.”  

Bond and Olsen want to see sweeping changes in Washington — but not to the filibuster. They want to flip contemporary politics on its head, because they say contemporary politics is a race to the bottom (unless, they say, you’re a lawmaker, in which case it improves your hyper-partisan fundraising potential). And both parties are equipped with booster packs these days.  

“Eliminating the filibuster just encourages parties to be partisan and encourages this winner-take-all attitude,” Olsen told The News Station. 

“The parties are not interested in working together, they’re interested in trying to get enough of a majority that can barely scrape together and then just pass[ing] their strong agenda and not care about what the other side has to say,” he added 

What many progressives seem to have forgotten, Bond and Olsen argue, is that the filibuster was the only backstop providing a nearly two-year check on President Donald Trump and the GOP lawmakers. And in this era of drastic swings over control of the House, Senate and White House, progressives themselves may soon find the filibuster their last lifeline. 

“Soon” comes quickly in Washington. 

“Why would you not care about that? Why would you not say, ‘the filibuster is for the good of the minority, whoever that happens to be,” an animated Olsen exclaimed in our group call. “What we see happening right now is that the minority swings back and forth every few years.”

“So why do we want to get rid of the filibuster?” Bond cuts in, “It’s foolish.”

Back at the Capitol — where Democrat’s economic, social and climate agenda remains on the line — the filibuster largely remains a fight for another day. 

Instead of fighting Republicans over reform efforts, Democrats are still fighting Democrats. 

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