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Opinion A top Biden ally just fired a warning shot on the filibuster. Should we believe it?

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

As a Democrat from Joe Biden’s longtime home state of Delaware, Sen. Christopher A. Coons is widely perceived to have a direct line to the president, so his views on what’s next after the failure of voting reform deserve careful attention.

In an interview with NPR on Wednesday, Coons struck a careful balance. On one hand, he kinda sorta hinted that if GOP obstruction continues, Democrats just might have to reluctantly end the filibuster. On the other, he echoed some of the worst arguments for keeping it.

This ambivalence captures an essential problem among Democrats: They appear to believe the only defensible or safe way they can end or even modify the filibuster is if they are perceived to be getting pushed into it by Republican obstruction, against their will.

But this cedes the argument up front. Democrats are still far too reluctant to give serious consideration to filibuster reform as the right thing to do on the merits, let alone to the idea that making a confident, affirmative case for it might be better politics than their oft-relied-upon theater of reluctance.

Every single GOP senator voted Tuesday against allowing any debate on the Democrats’ voting rights legislation. This didn’t merely block debate on the very ambitious For the People Act. It also nixed debate on the more modest compromise offered by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), which includes some voting protections progressives want, but also national voter ID.

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On NPR, Coons alluded to this and issued a warning shot. Coons pointed to bipartisan negotiations over other issues — infrastructure, immigration, police reform — and suggested that if action failed to materialize, Democrats might act.

“If all of these come to the same end as the efforts around voting rights, where it’s blocked 50-50, that’ll sharpen the focus on the filibuster,” Coons said.

That sure sounds like Democrats might be prepared to reform or end the filibuster. And yet, later in the interview, Coons echoed a bad argument in favor of keeping it.

“If we do get rid of the legislative filibuster,” Coons said, “the next time Republicans control the White House, the Senate and the House, they can quickly move through bills that would fundamentally alter a wide range of things.” He cited the environment, abortion and labor rights.

Obviously the main obstacle to filibuster reform right now is unrelenting opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). If they dropped their opposition, it’s likely that Coons and all 50 Democratic senators would get there.

But nonetheless, things like this from Coons signal a deeper problem than those two holdouts: an unwillingness of some moderates to entertain the affirmative case for reforming or ending the filibuster as a worthy end in itself, rather than something that they should fearfully entertain only if they get dragged to that point by GOP obstruction.

A bad argument

After all, Coons’s warning is not a good argument, either tactically or substantively. For one thing, since not acting will thwart democracy and voting reforms — which will permit Republican anti-majoritarian tactics to continue escalating across the country — it will make it more likely that Republicans do seize control of Washington.

For another, much of what Republicans want to do can already be done on a majoritarian basis in the Senate via “reconciliation.” When they had total control in 2017 and 2018, they successfully rammed through an enormously regressive tax cut and came close to repealing the Affordable Care Act, both via that tactic.

And Coons’s warning hardly precludes other important filibuster reforms that fall short of abolition. These include lowering the threshold for ending filibusters to 55 votes, requiring the minority to hold the floor and requiring the minority to marshal 41 votes to continue filibusters rather than 60 to end them.

Manchin has signaled openness to such reforms, which means they’re doable. And Democrats could make a strong affirmative case for them: They’d make the Senate more functional and less susceptible to minority abuse. Instead, Democrats act as if they must be backed into them.

Besides, even if it’s reasonable to fear GOP control in a majoritarian Senate, keeping the filibuster will almost certainly mean Democrats can’t act on immigration, guns, labor rights and many other things, including of course protecting democracy itself.

A bad trade-off

The trade-off here cannot be that Democrats will allow their own agenda to be thwarted wholesale to prevent Republicans from acting on their agenda if they win elections later.

Indeed, allowing that fear to reign could help turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It isn’t just that more deeply entrenched minority rule will make a GOP takeover more likely. It’s also that if GOP filibusters grind Biden’s agenda to a halt, Republicans will run against dysfunctional government to win back power.

What makes all this so puzzling is that Democrats know their best hope in undercutting Republican cultural warfare and holding power is to deliver on their legislative agenda. They keep telling us so themselves!

In short, the need to seriously pursue structural change — both on the filibuster and then on democracy reform — will soon become avoidable. The prospect of playing procedural hardball may push Democrats out of their comfort zone, but it cannot be deferred forever.

Coons’s warning shot seems to hint at an understanding of this. But as long as Democrats keep treating filibuster reform as a cause for tentativeness and fear, there’s no reason to believe him.