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Opinion Biden just fired a warning shot at Mitch McConnell and Republicans

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)

Mark it down. President Biden has now declared in his most explicit terms yet that Democrats may soon face a stark choice: reform the filibuster or accept that their agenda is a dead letter.

At bottom, this constitutes the firing of a warning shot at Senate Republicans, especially Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Or it should, anyway: It will only matter if Biden and Democrats are actually prepared to act on it, because McConnell will proceed as if they are not.

Biden’s new comments came in an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, in which Biden came out for reforming the filibuster. This is generating headlines, but what may be even more important is this: Biden displayed a newfound recognition of basic realities about today’s GOP — and about our politics in general — that can’t be wished away.

Here’s the key exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: I know you’ve been reluctant to do away with the filibuster. Aren’t you going to have to choose between preserving the filibuster and advancing your agenda?
BIDEN: Yes. But here’s the choice: I don’t think you have to eliminate the filibuster. You have to do what it used to be when I first got to the Senate … and that is, that a filibuster, you had to stand up and command the floor. … So you gotta work for the filibuster.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re for that reform? You’re for bringing back the talking filibuster?
BIDEN: I am.

The most important word here is “Yes.” With it, Biden voiced an awareness, perhaps more clearly than ever before, that the fate of Democrats’ agenda will likely depend on a willingness to stiffen up their spines and reform the Senate in the direction of true majority rule.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden infamously declared that if Republicans lost, they would seek “consensus” after having an “epiphany.”

This suggested a conviction that any GOP intention to adopt a scorched earth strategy similar to that of 2009 — which employed the filibuster to deliberately withhold bipartisan cooperation for purely instrumental purposes — then it would be overwhelmed by the shock of electoral defeat. Biden also vowed to secure Republican cooperation, implying lingering faith in a glad-handing bipartisan give-and-take out of a long-vanished time.

After Biden’s win, of course, Republicans denied it had happened for weeks, and many joined an effort to nullify that outcome.

On ABC News, Biden also indulged in more of that sort of talk, declaring: “I think the epiphany is going to come between now and 2022.” Whether Biden really believes this, it’s now packaged with an explicit declaration that Democrats really might have to target the filibuster or see their agenda perish.

In this juxtaposition a rhetorical structure is taking shape that might create a path to get to that point.

How Democrats might get to reform

Adam Jentleson, a former senior Senate aide who has written a good book on the need for Senate reform, notes that when former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) nixed the filibuster on judicial nominees in 2013, it only came after a long process of extensive GOP obstruction.

“A change of this magnitude only happens if it’s helped along by structural shifts in the way people are approaching politics,” Jentleson told me. “In 2013, it was unrelenting Republican obstruction over years that made change inevitable.”

Jentleson said the same is happening now, but more quickly, because many Democrats came into this Congress expecting a repeat of 2009. We’ve also had years of public debate over the filibuster, which has punctured the mythology surrounding it, particularly that it facilitates bipartisanship, when the truth is the opposite.

So when Biden suggested in 2020 that he’d cajole Republicans into working with him, it seemed frustratingly oblivious to that intellectual progress. But that posture might also help create a route forward.

As a creature of the Senate with obvious affection for the institution, Biden can continue to express a hope for bipartisan cooperation above all — while also suggesting that if it doesn’t materialize, Democrats might have to prioritize the survival of their agenda and support reform for the good of the institution itself.

“Part of the reason Biden is going to be able to get this done is that he has enormous credibility on the matter,” Jentleson told me. “When he comes to the American people and says, ‘We have no choice but to do this,’ people will believe him.”

If Democratic filibuster reform opponents — like Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — are ever going to evolve, this is how it might happen.

Indeed, as Jonathan Bernstein suggests, by floating bringing back the talking filibuster, Biden may be appealing to Manchin, who has himself suggested this. It’s unclear how much this change would do, but by supporting Manchin’s version of reform, Biden may slowly nudge him toward supporting an end to the filibuster, if and when it becomes clear — even to Manchin — that the Democratic agenda depends on it.

A deeper rethink?

Regardless, we have to hope Biden’s new comments suggest he’s rethinking some deeper convictions.

First, Biden plainly believed that Republicans would be responsive in some sense to a popular majority electing Democrats and their agenda. Second, he also seemed to believe that as a result, Republicans would end up being motivated by a good faith desire to find common ground in the public interest, rather than responding to that majority repudiation by doubling down on anti-majoritarian tactics and revanchism.

Everything we’re seeing now confirms that Republicans are radicalizing in that latter direction. So if Biden is rethinking those original expectations, that would really constitute the sort of warning shot that Republicans should worry about.

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