The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pressure to reform the filibuster is already working

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) departs the Capitol on Tuesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

Democrats in the Senate are having more serious discussion about reform of the filibuster than they’ve had in a long time. And guess what: It’s working.

First, it’s clearly having a persuasive effect on many in their own party, who are newly expressing an openness to reforming the filibuster or just getting rid of it. Once you have to really confront it, it becomes almost impossible to defend.

There are two other vivid new ways in which the pressure for reform is working: Some Republicans are expressing a real desire for bipartisanship, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is squealing like a stuck pig.

Let’s consider the bipartisanship first. Politico reports that senators from both parties are coming together to see what they might accomplish:

Its meeting this week comes as the House prepares to pass immigration bills that will further reinforce the Senate's gridlock on that issue without some bipartisan framework to break the impasse.
“It’s something the group of 20 of us, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, will discuss tomorrow and decide whether we take this up. Or whether instead we focus on the minimum wage,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in an interview. “But there are places we can come together.”

While we don’t know whether this will produce anything, it’s happening precisely because of the threat that Democrats might eliminate the filibuster and start passing the bills their party ran on.

As long as that threat is alive, the incentives for a moderate Republican push them toward working with Democrats. If you were one of them and you knew that 60 votes would be required on anything, and because of that the majority’s agenda was dead in the water, why bother negotiating? You wouldn't care what legislation they passed in the House.

If, on the other hand, a Senate that runs by majority rule is a real possibility, you’d want to get in on the action. If bills are going to pass with 50 votes, you can work on them with Democrats and shape them to your liking, giving those Democrats the couple of extra votes they’ll need to have a margin of comfort.

In the meantime, by working with Democrats you might convince them not to get rid of the filibuster, by helping them get a victory or two that reduces the pressure to get rid of it entirely.

And there are indeed issues where bipartisanship is possible, not only immigration and the minimum wage (Republicans won’t go along with an increase to $15, but you might get 10 of them to agree to a smaller hike), but also an infrastructure bill, which offers benefits to every state and district in the country.

But there’s one person who is terrified that bipartisanship might break out: Mitch McConnell. Which is why he issued an over-the-top warning to Democrats on Tuesday, essentially threatening to burn the Senate down if they reform the filibuster:

“Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” he said. “Even the most basic aspects of our colleagues’ agenda, the most mundane tasks of the Biden presidency would actually be harder, not easier for Democrats in a post-nuclear Senate. … We will use every other rule to make tens of millions of Americans voices heard.”
“It would not open up an express line for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books," he added. “The Senate would be more like 100-car pileup — nothing moving.”

It’s true that the rules of the Senate would allow McConnell to slow things down considerably, in part because “unanimous consent” is required for many of those mundane tasks, and if McConnell refuses his consent, things will slow to a snail’s pace.

But they won’t be halted forever. And the idea that if the Democrats reform the filibuster then McConnell will stop things from getting done is ridiculous, because that’s the situation we’re already in. To extend his automotive metaphor, it’s like someone parking in front of your driveway, then when you say, “Hey, get your car out of the way, I have to go to work,” they respond, “If you try to stop me from blocking you in, I’ll block you in!”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defended the filibuster, a key Senate rule McConnell wants to keep in a power-sharing deal with Democrats. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Photo: Reuters/The Washington Post)

In his speech, McConnell offered another threat: If Democrats reform the filibuster so they can pass their agenda, when Republicans retake power they’ll do the same. The pendulum “would swing hard,” he said, adding that Republicans would pass “all kinds of conservative policies” with “zero input from the other side.” He mentioned a national right-to-work law and defunding Planned Parenthood as reasons for Democrats to fear.

In other words, McConnell’s threat is to make democracy work by giving voters the things they voted for, now and in the future. How terrifying!

His final argument is perhaps the most bizarre. Americans, McConnell insisted in so many words, want gridlock:

Does anyone really believe the American people were voting for an entirely new system of government by electing Joe Biden to the White House and a 50-50 Senate? This is a 50-50 Senate. There was no mandate to completely transform America by the American people on November 3.

Actually, that’s exactly what they voted for. They voted Republicans out of the White House and the Senate, and voted Democrats in. Those Democrats ran on an agenda, and the voters have a right to expect that agenda to be passed.

As for the 50-50 Senate, it didn’t come about because Americans wanted everything to be paralyzed. The 50 Democrats represent 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republicans. A majority of the public quite clearly wants to see President Biden and Democrats pass the things that got them elected. And if they don’t like the results, they can elect Republicans to roll it all back.

So this is where we are. Filibuster reform is far from a certainty, but it’s never been more possible than it is right now. Seeing the writing on the wall, moderate Republicans are suddenly eager for negotiation and cooperation, raising the chances of true bipartisan legislation. And McConnell is beside himself.

Seems like things are going pretty well.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Ron Johnson’s racism is breathtaking

Paul Waldman: Donald Trump is fading away. Republicans ought to celebrate.

The Post’s View: Texas Republicans declare war on democracy

Jodi Habush Sinykin and Donald Waller: Wisconsin’s brutal wolf hunt shows hunters have too much sway over conservation policy