The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Conor Lamb’s filibuster move says about the new Democratic consensus

Rep. Conor Lamb in 2017. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)

Moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party disagree on plenty of things, but there’s no longer any disagreement on this point: Government has to work, and that means removing the procedural weapons Republicans use to keep it from working. Foremost among those is the filibuster.

That’s why it’s significant to see Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, make this kind of emphatic statement:

Lamb has taken this position before (he first did last year in response to Republican resistance to a Jan. 6 commission). But when he says, “We have to win this seat to end the filibuster,” he’s elevating it to the top of reasons why people should vote for him.

This is particularly revealing coming from Lamb given his symbolically important place in the party. Lamb first came to Congress in a 2018 special election, running in a Republican-leaning district outside Pittsburgh. Democrats were conflicted about him from the beginning: They were excited about snatching a GOP seat, but while some heralded Lamb as just the kind of candidate (moderate, military veteran) to make the party more competitive among White voters, others worried that his stance on issues would dilute the party’s principles.

To bring the point home, Lamb distanced himself from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during that campaign, then voted against her for speaker.

Today, the Senate primary in Pennsylvania pits Lamb against more progressive candidates, especially Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who seems to be leading for now. But, like Lamb, the progressives in the race are committed to eliminating the filibuster.

In fact, that’s true across the country. There are five states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where Democrats look to have any realistic chance of flipping Senate seats. All the contending Democrats in every one of them have stated support for ending the filibuster or significantly reforming it.

That’s true regardless of whether they’re moderates or progressives. Most, such as Rep. Tim Ryan in Ohio or Rep. Val Demings in Florida, said so early in their campaigns, while candidates such as former state supreme court justice Cheri Beasley in North Carolina took a little while before coming around. But in every contested Democratic Senate primary, it has become a source of agreement.

Whenever another one of them says so, the Republican Party and right-wing media characterize it as an ideological decision (“Lamb Makes Radical Left Turn,” according to Breitbart). But it’s important precisely because it isn’t ideological.

A candidate such as Lamb could run to the right in the primary and hope the multiple progressives split the remaining vote. But he clearly understands that he can’t buck what has become not just consensus but foundational within his party.

That’s because, in the way Republicans use it today, the filibuster doesn’t just stymie progressive legislation, it stymies almost all legislation. If it was only used to block single-payer health care or a guaranteed basic income, Democrats such as Lamb would still favor maintaining it. But by using it against almost every significant piece of legislation, Republicans have pushed even centrist Democrats into a position where they can no longer support it.

While a Democrat such as Lamb might have a somewhat different agenda than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), they all agree that government should solve problems. When the GOP takes the position that government should essentially do nothing, that leaves the entire spectrum of Democrats united in favor of reform.

This is also occurring against a broader backdrop in which Republican procedural radicalism is at play at every level of government and politics. It isn’t just about the filibuster, it’s also about gerrymandering, about voter suppression, about the insanity of the debt ceiling, about state legislatures enacting blatantly unconstitutional laws and then getting the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court to give them a wink and a nod.

It’s about holding open Supreme Court seats to obtain that supermajority, about taking over the machinery of elections, about “preemption” laws that Republican state legislatures use to prevent Democratic cities from setting their own rules, and about the shape of minority rule that gives Republicans such disproportionate power.

Every Democratic politician, progressive or moderate, knows how frustrated and angry their constituents are about that reality, and how disgusted they are with Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for blocking reform. And while Republican opposition researchers are scouring old C-SPAN videos and newspapers for supportive statements about the filibuster from Democrats who now oppose it, procedural questions used to be of only minor relevance, so if you had a position on them at all, it wasn’t all that important.

But now it is. In fact, there may be nothing more important to Democrats than whether candidates want to push back on the Republican effort to twist the American political system into something undemocratic and incapable of achieving anything useful.

That’s where the real fight is. And every Democrat, no matter their ideology, has to tell voters what they’re going to do about it.