Let’s start with the good news. Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue and stimulus package is on its way to enactment. It passed the House and can get through the Senate with 50 Democratic votes, plus Vice President Harris’s tiebreaker, because the Senate’s “reconciliation” rule essentially allows money bills to pass on a simple majority.
Yes, there are some differences among Democrats that are being ironed out — how exactly to structure the $1,400 checks, for example, and whether to move some money from one program to another. But these are part of a normal give-and-take.
And the president had a good day on Tuesday when he announced a White House-brokered deal in which the big pharmaceutical company Merck will help manufacture Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine. Biden was thus able to announce that there would be enough vaccines “for every adult in America by the end of May.”
But the limits placed on legislating by what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has rightly called the Senate’s “incredibly obtuse and undemocratic rules” have already opened a rift in the party over the minimum wage. And the big showdown will come when the pro-voting rights, pro-democracy political reform bill the House is expected to pass hits the Senate floor.
The House included a minimum-wage increase to $15 by 2025 in its version of Biden’s economic rescue plan. But the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the wage provision didn’t fit under reconciliation rules. Senate Democrats seem likely to knock it out of the bill rather than overrule the parliamentarian.
I’m for $15, since it’s hardly radical to phase it in over four years. And there would be nothing wrong with the usual legislative jockeying over whether the “right” number might be $12 or $14. But what’s absurd is that a core and very popular Biden promise should be held hostage to rules that even a gifted Talmudic scholar would have trouble explaining.
Still, let’s assume the Democrats manage to push a minimum-wage increase through by tacking it on to a defense bill or some other measure Republicans feel they must vote for. The inescapable confrontation will come over the For the People Act, and, later, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Right before our eyes, Republicans in states such as Georgia and Arizona are engaging in blatant voter suppression. They’re rolling back mail voting, Sunday voting and other measures that made it easier for everyone to vote in 2020. As former president Donald Trump made clear in his coming-out rant last Sunday, Republicans think they can’t win if too many people vote — i.e., if democracy functions properly. Oh, yes, and Republicans also hope to gerrymander their way back to a House majority.
Among other things, the For the People Act would end partisan gerrymanders. It would also require states to offer at least 15 days of early voting, access to no-excuse and postage-free mail ballots, and drop boxes to make casting a vote easier. In other words: voter expansion, not suppression.
If Democrats who continue to defend the filibuster, notably Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), don’t accept lifting it on behalf of political reform, they will be asking their party to commit political suicide in the face of the GOP’s discriminatory, anti-voter drive. They will be maiming democracy, too.
It will eventually fall to Biden to have a heart-to-heart with Manchin, Sinema and other senators reluctant to part with the old rules. As a Senate warhorse himself, Biden will have special credibility if he says it’s time for change.
A key point is that the filibuster is not even what it used to be. For most of our history, it did not routinely require 60 Senate votes to pass most legislation. The escalating use and abuse of the filibuster can be measured, imperfectly but revealingly, by the number of cloture motions filed over the years to shut down filibusters.
In the entire span from 1917 and 1970 (53 years), there were only 58 cloture motions. From 1971 to 2006 (35 years), there were 928 cloture motions. Since 2007 (less than 14 years), there have been 1,307.
Something is wrong. This is not about “tradition” or “bipartisanship.” This is a choice between obstruction and majority rule — in the Senate, yes, but also in our elections. If Biden wants to build on the success he has enjoyed so far, he needs to defuse the crisis that awaits him.