The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Here’s the key to overcoming resistance to reforming the filibuster

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). (Al Drago for The Washington Post)

The future of democracy in the United States is quite literally at stake in what happens over the next year or so. While Republicans at the state level have launched what amounts to a war on voting, Democrats in Congress are hoping to pass a sweeping package of reforms meant to secure voting rights and level the electoral playing field.

The For the People Act has already passed the House, but its fate hinges on whether it will die at the hands of the Senate filibuster.

So how can Democrats persuade their own party’s filibuster fetishists — Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and perhaps a few others — to finally agree to reform the rules and give this bill, and so many others, a chance at passage?

By talking less about the filibuster itself, and more about what those holdouts actually want to do.

Trust me, no one finds the lame arguments that Manchin and others make in defense of the filibuster more maddening than I do; to listen to them, you’d think that the filibuster has made this a golden age of cooperative bipartisan legislating. But as long as the questions they get about it are divorced from particular legislation, they can go on making their ridiculous claims.

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They can say, for instance, that the filibuster results in "better, commonsense legislation,” as Sinema does, so long as nobody follows up with, “Like what? Can you give me an example?” That’s because the world in which the filibuster produces bipartisan cooperation exists only in the naive imaginations of people unfamiliar with American politics over the past 20 years or so.

So as tempting as it is to attack and ridicule Manchin and Sinema, that won’t change their minds. They have to be forced to choose between the filibuster and important legislation, bills that they themselves would like to see be passed into law. You do that by making the debate concrete, grounding it in the legislation itself, and getting them to take positions and have a stake in the outcome.

Take, for example, the voting rights package. When someone like Manchin is interviewed, instead of asking him the thousandth iteration of “Will you support killing the filibuster?” let’s find out what he actually thinks about that bill.

To refresh your memory, here are some of its major provisions:

  • Requires automatic voter registration
  • Requires reasonably generous early voting
  • Requires no-excuse absentee voting or vote by mail
  • Mandates independent commissions to draw congressional districts to end partisan gerrymandering
  • Limits voter purges
  • Restores voting rights to those with felony convictions
  • Establishes public financing for federal campaigns in which small donations would be matched
  • Restricts “dark money”

It’s almost certain that Manchin and Sinema favor some of these ideas and disagree with others. So let’s start the negotiation! If, for instance, they take the position that automatic voter registration and independent redistricting commissions are good but they don’t want matching funds for small donations, a new version of the bill could be written that reflects their concerns. Inevitably, some of the bill’s provisions will fall by the wayside, but that’s how lawmaking works.

That’s what happened with the American Rescue Plan: Manchin had some objections, those objections were accounted for, and in the final bill he was able to tell his constituents that he had bargained it down from what the liberals wanted, reinforcing his persona as the Democrat who restrains other Democrats but ultimately helps get things done.

He could have killed the entire bill by voting with Republicans, but he didn’t. That’s because he wanted it to pass, and its final version came out of negotiations in which he had played a critical part.

The same thing should happen on voting rights (or infrastructure, or immigration, or anything else). Once you get Manchin negotiating on the substance — and taking public positions on that substance — it becomes harder for him to refuse any kind of filibuster reform. He can’t say, “It’s important to me that the bill include A, B and C, but not D or E, and that’s my bottom line” — and then say “I also think we should just let Republicans veto the whole thing.”

Manchin has already signaled that although he doesn’t want the filibuster eliminated, he might consider some changes to it, as long as they don’t “take away the involvement of the minority.” But he won’t have to go any further as long as the discussion stays at the level of abstraction, and he can wax rhapsodic about how “the Senate is the most unique … governing body in the world."

But once we start debating what kind of voting rights bill we need — and what kind Manchin wants — everything changes. If and when he decides to allow filibuster reform, it will have to be for a reason he can sell back home, one that isn’t about Senate procedures but is about something meaningful that his constituents support.

Which means that the only way to get filibuster reform is to make the holdouts talk less about the filibuster itself, and more about the important things they and other Democrats want to do.