How a 60-vote threshold in the Senate threatens to slam the brakes on much of Biden's legislative agenda
- A 19th-century Senate tactic known as the filibuster threatens to pose major hurdles for President Joe Biden as he tries to get his agenda off the ground.
- Democrats are poised to pass coronavirus relief with a majority vote if bipartisan talks fall through, but other parts of their agenda cannot pass via reconciliation.
- The odds of filibuster reform appear slim for now as a few moderate Democrats have come out against it.
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Democrats wield full control over the levers of power in Washington for the first time in a decade. A surprise victory in two Senate runoffs in Georgia delivered Democrats a narrow majority in the Senate, opening the door for a larger stimulus package and healthcare reform.
In the week since his inauguration, Biden has acted quickly. He’s signed an array of executive orders to start getting his priorities off the ground, including measures for economic relief and combating climate change.
But a Senate tactic that emerged in the early 19th century threatens to pose major hurdles for President Joe Biden to act on parts of his legislative agenda: the filibuster. It’s the 60-vote threshold for most bills to pass.
Many Democrats — particularly progressive lawmakers and activists —view it as among the biggest barriers for swift action. The procedure has come under intense scrutiny recently, and Biden has previously signaled an openness to do away with it as calls for filibuster reform mount.
A face-off over its future held up a power-sharing agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for several days. McConnell demanded Schumer to pledge to keep the filibuster, a dispute that blocked the Senate from rearranging committees and other basic functions.
“The filibuster is a tool of obstruction,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan tweeted on Monday. “It does not encourage debate, it does not allow for more voices to be heard, it is for suppression only. End it.”
Democrats can ditch the filibuster by forcing a rules change on a party-line vote, a move known as the “nuclear option.” Corbin Trent, a co-founder of the No Excuses PAC, argued the filibuster is an arcane tool impeding action on the coronavirus outbreak and climate change among other crises.
“The case is that we’ve got a pandemic that’s raging out of control,” Trent, a former spokesperson for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), said in an interview. “It’s proven that politics blocks progress even when it comes to saving lives in the immediate term.”
“We’ve got this amazing opportunity,” he said. “So why don’t we build something nice?”
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“McConnell is not going to dictate what this Senate does”
The filibuster is the 60-vote threshold to end debate on most bills. Senators began using it with more frequency leading up to the Civil War, and afterwards the filibuster became a “regular feature of Senate activity,” Molly Reynolds, a governance fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a blog post.
The number of filibusters have soared over the last two decades, with Republicans wielding it through President Barack Obama’s second term in office. Through the filibuster, the GOP blocked legislative action on climate change and immigration reform during the Obama administration — two areas that are now Biden’s top priorities.
That appeared to weigh on Obama. Last summer, Obama called to jettison the filibuster, characterizing it as a “Jim-Crow-relic” because Southern congressmen used it to hinder the passage of civil rights legislation for Black Americans. Harry Reid, the former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, also endorsed scrapping it.
Schumer is under immense pressure to eliminate the filibuster, but hasn’t stated his support for it so far. “We are united in the view McConnell is not going to dictate what this Senate does,” he told MSNBC recently. “And we will come together as a caucus and figure it out.”
However, some like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona say they are strongly opposed to tossing out the filibuster. They argue it would remove the last vestiges of bipartisanship in Congress.
Their opposition effectively kills filibuster reform for now as every Senate Democrat must back it.
“We’ve got to come together, so I do not support doing away with the filibuster under any condition,” Manchin told reporters on Capitol Hill this week. “It’s not who I am.”
Democrats are poised to use reconcilation if bipartisan talks on Biden’s stimulus package fall apart. But the budgetary maneuver has strict rules constricting its use only for tax-and-spending measures. It can only be used once every fiscal year, though Democrats have room to use it twice this year.
Some progressive organizations are already launching campaigns in a bid to pressure those Manchin and Sinema into reversing course. Trent’s No Excuses PAC recently launched six-figure newspaper, digital, and radio ad buys in West Virginia and Arizona to slam their reluctance to abolishing the filibuster.
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