The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Manchin thinks the filibuster fosters bipartisanship. Here’s why it doesn’t.

The budget reconciliation rule has proved more of a spur to cooperation, but even that is limited

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), left, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), foreground, arrive for a bipartisan meeting on infrastructure at the Capitol last week. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
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Eliminate the filibuster? Both Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) emphatically say no. Both say the filibuster is key to making bipartisanship possible, and bipartisanship is the linchpin to a functioning Senate and democracy. “The idea of the filibuster was created by those who came before us in the United States Senate to create comity and to encourage senators to find bipartisanship and work together,” Sinema told reporters early this month. Manchin, writing in The Washington Post in April, said, “The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”

But even if bipartisanship is essential to democracy, does the filibuster, as these senators seem to believe, enable it? Does it “create” the necessary comity? The perception has been that bipartisanship does not exist in the Senate, even with the filibuster firmly in place. That is not entirely the case, however. With a robust 68-vote bipartisan supermajority, the Senate just passed the Endless Frontier bill to deal with competitiveness with China. Bipartisan negotiations over a police reform bill have reportedly come close to ending the logjam over the most difficult provision, qualified immunity. And while they are still far from an actual bill, bipartisan negotiators on infrastructure — 10 senators, five from each party — announced agreement on a framework for a deal that does not raise taxes.

Other issues and even some confirmations have achieved broad support. So far, there has been bipartisan action on paycheck protection, a bill to expedite organ transplants, and the creation of a new directorate on technology and innovation in the National Science Foundation. Some confirmations, such as Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general and Samantha Power as head of USAID, have had strong bipartisan support. On many committees, Democrats and Republicans have found common ground, as Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have on mental health reform.

Why do we have these islands of harmony, even amid the deep dysfunction? Could it be the threat of the filibuster? There is zero evidence that it is.

For issues like China and competitiveness, the bipartisanship came about because the political imperatives of the parties converged — if Republicans failed to support a bill aimed at confronting China on the international economic stage, it would be a detriment for them (and, of course, if Democrats failed to deal with China on this issue, they would be attacked mercilessly by Republicans). As for issues like mental health reform and support for the National Science Foundation, they are enough below the radar that there is little payoff in filibustering or killing initiatives — and passing some measures that are relatively uncontroversial makes the Republicans look constructive without their paying a political price with their base.

Infrastructure is a more complicated issue. There is broad public support for it. A CBS poll found that building or repairing American roads and bridges gets 87 percent support from the public. Replacing or repairing water pipes gets 85 percent; providing more home care for the elderly, 83 percent; installing broadband Internet in rural areas garners 78 percent; and building public schools has 73 percent support. As the network pollsters note, “Each of these items finds majority approval among Democrats, independents and Republicans alike.”

But make it President Biden’s plan and the results are different: 90 percent of Democrats support it, along with 57 percent of independents — but only 19 percent of Republicans.

The initial negotiations between the designated Republican leadership representative, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), and Biden fell apart because of that low support in the party for the Biden plan. Republicans offered a mere $330 billion in new spending, compared with the Biden plan’s $1.7 trillion, and set as a red line no changes of any sort in the 2017 tax bill, a formula set to fail.

Five myths about bipartisanship

But the subsequent negotiators had a different imperative — the realization that much of the Biden plan could be passed with 50 votes under the budget reconciliation process, so the complete failure of Republicans to engage in the infrastructure issue would have left them on the wrong and obstructionist side of an issue highly popular with their base.

So could it be that it’s really the threat of reconciliation, and not the filibuster, that leads to some bipartisanship? Not necessarily.

If budget reconciliation was a spur for bipartisan negotiation and at least agreement in principle, it did not work with the American Rescue Plan. There, even though it was apparent that Democrats could pass their full, $1.9 trillion comprehensive plan with just the 50 Democrats, and that Biden made clear his strong preference for a compromise that would find a supermajority, the Republican negotiations were absurd from the start — a lowball spending figure of less than a third of Biden’s while eviscerating most of the Biden priorities.

On that set of issues, the Republican imperative to deny Biden an early big victory showing he was fulfilling his promise of working with the other side trumped any desire to cooperate. It fit the broader motivation and strategy Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made crystal clear when talking to reporters in Kentucky: “One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell said, adding, “We’re confronted with severe challenges from a new administration, and a narrow majority of Democrats in the House and a 50-50 Senate to turn America into a socialist country, and that’s 100 percent of my focus.”

Democrats can’t kill the filibuster. But they can gut it.

On some issues, then, a rule like reconciliation can be a spur to compromise, if the president wants it and the other party sees an interest in doing so. But it is a limited spur, something that fits only a narrow range of budget-connected issues, and not when the larger GOP strategy makes obduracy more attractive than cooperation. The filibuster, on the other hand, has not recently shown itself to be even a limited spur to bipartisanship.

Unfortunately, as we look at the key issues confronting Congress and the country, where there is no spur like reconciliation, the prospect for something positive is grim. We saw this with the filibuster that killed the proposed Jan. 6 commission, which passed the House with bipartisan support, gave Republicans everything they demanded but was still quashed by McConnell. Its death by filibuster angered Manchin, but not enough to alter his basic view of the Senate.

We also saw this approach with pay equity. We are seeing it with the broad election reform measure, the For the People Act, which has brought intense GOP opposition. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Republican leader, called the bill a thinly veiled power grab.

Even on the narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the previously enacted version of which was co-sponsored by Republicans like Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), Grassley and McConnell have signaled their opposition, and only one Republican, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, has signed on with Manchin as a supporter. On another issue where there is overwhelming public support, background checks on guns, Senate Republicans have shown no willingness to support either of the two bills that have passed the House. And since the burden is on Democrats who want these bills to find 60 votes, meaning at least 10 Republicans, action is a non-starter.

“When you have a system that is not working effectively — and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine,” Sinema said. “The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior.” On the contrary. The Senate Republicans have shown no sign they are about to change their behavior. When it comes to the key issues facing the country — from saving democracy to tax reform to climate change — it will take a rules change: eliminating or at least modifying the filibuster to put the burden on the minority instead of the majority, to give at least a spur to cooperation.