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Calls to end the filibuster have bigger problems than Joe Manchin

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). (Jim Watson/Pool/Reuters)
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Sen. Joe Manchin III — a Democrat from West Virginia, one of the reddest states in the country — has quickly emerged as a central figure in the divided Senate. His position on the economic relief bill approved over the weekend became the litmus test for passage, given the need for every Democrat to support it.

That bill was unusual, though. It relied on the reconciliation process for passage, a set of wonky rules that meant it was not subject to a filibuster. Usually, Manchin’s views on legislation are no more important than any other Democrat’s because Republicans can exploit the now common tactic of demanding a 60-vote margin to proceed with final consideration of a bill. In other words, passage of a bill by the Democratic majority moves from depending on the most moderate Democrat to depending on a mid-tier Republican. Or from “maybe passing” to “almost certainly not.”

Manchin has nonetheless long expressed opposition to changing the filibuster rules. His approach has been that West Virginia, as one of the least populous states, benefits from the rule’s elevation of the power of smaller states. In an interview Sunday, though, his position seemed to soften, however slightly.

“The Senate is the most unique … governing body in the world,” he said in an interview on NBC News. “It’s deliberate. It’s basically designed … to make sure the minority has input.”

But he noted that the current implementation of the filibuster — an issued threat instead of an actual effort to delay passage of a bill with a marathon talking session — was not what the rule intended.

“Now if you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk, I’m willing to look at any way we can,” Manchin said. “But I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority.”

That’s a minor shift, but one that brings Manchin closer in line with others in his caucus. Many Democrats call for reforming the filibuster, not deep-sixing it. Suddenly, Manchin is talking like others on the team.

For casual observers of the situation, it may seem as though the caucus is only one short step from getting rid of the filibuster entirely. That last step, in this framing, is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the other moderate Democrat who has consistently supported the filibuster. (She did so again last month in an email to constituents.)

But that fails to recognize the breadth of skepticism about changing the filibuster among Senate Democrats.

The caucus can be split into three groups: those supporting changes (or axing the process entirely), those open to changes should Republicans try to obstruct legislation that has majority support, and those who haven’t expressed such openness. A review of the most recent comments on the filibuster shows that 19 Democrats (or independents who caucus with the Democrats) appear to fall into the “reform” category, 18 are open to making changes — and 13 oppose changes or haven’t taken a discernible public position.

That’s about as evenly divided as the issue can get. It’s a reminder that this is not a subject on which the caucus itself has a unified position but, instead, is a subject of contention even among Democrats who agree on desired policy outcomes.

This may change. Should Republicans try to repeatedly block policies that have majority support nationally and could pass with a majority of the Senate, there will be more calls to change or dump filibuster rules. That’s not the position Democrats are in now.

That includes the most powerful Democrat in the country: President Biden.

“The president’s preference is not to get rid of the filibuster,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a news conference Monday. He’s likely to get his wish.

Below, the most recent or substantial comments from Democratic senators on the filibuster issue.

Support changes

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.): “Recently, the threat of filibuster has been used far too often and as a result political obstructionism in the United States Senate is now worse than it has ever been. The people of Wisconsin and our state’s progressive tradition deserve better.” (2013)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.): “I think we ought to end the filibuster, unquestionably. It is an obstacle to conquering the pandemic and reviving the economy, getting stuff done.” (January)

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio): “We’ve got to eliminate the filibuster.” (October)

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.): “The trade off is to make it easier to proceed to legislation versus guaranteed amendments and debate on the floor but preserving a broader consensus to move bills at the end. That would be significant.” (January)

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.): “Yes, absolutely. And look, major changes to the filibuster for someone like me would not have been on the agenda, even a few years ago. But the senate does not work like it used to.” (March)

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.): “The sort of filibuster usage we see makes it impossible to do some very basic things that the American people demanded of us.” (Last week)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): “I would get rid of the filibuster. I have favored filibuster reform for a long time and now especially for this critical election bill.” (Last week)

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.): “My constituents supported me knowing that I support filibuster reform. And so I’m going to come here and hope that that’s a tool that we can use.” (Last week)

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.): “The filibuster must go. It’s something that’s rooted in a racist past, and it’s used today as a way of blocking the progressive agenda which President Biden is proposing — [including] environmental justice, racial justice, economic justice.” (February)

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.): “We’ve got to work very hard to restore the ability of the Senate to work as a legislative body and take on the big issues facing America.” (January)

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.): “My hope is that we’ll be able to have a conversation about rules reform. I think we’re all interested in making sure Joe Biden’s agenda has a shot in the Senate. And let’s figure out ways that we can make sure that the minority doesn’t control the place every single day.” (January)

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.): “I’m in favor of abolishing the filibuster. There are a couple Democratic senators who have said they are not there yet. If we continue to see obstruction from our Republican colleagues as we saw through this covid relief package, I think the patience is going to wear thin, even on moderate Democrats. But we will see.” (Sunday)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “We must pass a comprehensive agenda to guarantee the rights and dignity of everyone in this country. And that means, among other things, reauthorizing and expanding the Voting Rights Act, for which Congressman John Lewis put his life on the line. As President Obama said, if that requires us to eliminate the filibuster, then that is what we must do.” (July)

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii): “The filibuster was never in the constitution, originated mostly by accident, and has historically been used to block civil rights. No legislatures on earth have a supermajority requirement because that’s stupid and paralyzing. It’s time to trash the Jim Crow filibuster.” (February)

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.): “I think we need to change the filibuster rule in the Senate. It’s an arcane process. I don’t think we should have every vote require 60 in order to get something done.” (2014)

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.): “I’ve made up my mind. We need to move this country forward, and that’s why I’ve decided to come out in support of eliminating the filibuster.” (Last week)

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.): “Americans should not be robbed of a living wage by archaic Senate rules and procedures — including the filibuster. We must increase the minimum wage, and I’ll keep pushing until we get it done.” (February)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): “We are willing to roll back the filibuster, go with the majority vote and do what needs to be done for the American people.” (February)

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): “I am not going to let Mitch McConnell stonewall the ability to meet the urgent needs of the American people through procedural kinds of approaches that just tie the place in knots.” (January)

Open to changes

Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.): “If people continue for their own political reasons to make it impossible for the majority to exercise its will, filibuster reform may have to be on the table.” (September)

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.): “You have to understand that a lot of these that are talked about: If we do it when we have the control to do it, they can do it again. What we need to find is real solutions that are sustainable regardless of who is president. We should be careful about the traditions in this country and how we honor them.” (March 2019)

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.): “I don’t think the first, second or third thing we do is have some debate about rules changes, because the president-elect was clear throughout his campaign he will try to work across the aisle and to bring the country together. And I expect that we will do that first and then see.” (January)

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.): “McConnell is determined to exploit the filibuster and fight progress on the most urgent crises facing our nation and if he wants to block action on health care, climate change, and voting rights, he should have to stand on the Senate floor and be transparent about his obstruction.” (This week)

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.): “I’m willing to work and compromise with my Republican colleagues. But at the end of the day, if they’re going to be obstructionist and not allow us to get those priorities that I listed out the door to help the American people, then everything is on the table as far as I’m concerned.” (February)

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.): “Unfortunately, we’ve reached that point. And if enough members in the Senate agree, we’ll change the rules.” (This month)

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): “I’m of the view that we should eliminate the filibuster despite all the risks. ... [W]e can have a period of time to see if they’re willing to negotiate in good faith and willing to not hold common-sense things up and not have lots of party line votes. If that’s possible, then maybe we can govern with the filibuster, but if they start jamming us on basic things like covid relief, then that may change Sen. Schumer’s view.” (January)

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.): “If push comes to shove, I have to look at everything.” (September)

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): “There was a time when I did not support a filibuster change, because the filibuster is supposed to protect the voices of the minorities. We’re in the minority. I don’t think our voices are being protected, so I’m open to that discussion, but it won’t happen unless the Democrats take back the Senate.” (October)

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.): “I’m very open to it. Look, I was governor of a state with two legislatures and everything is operated by simple majority. It works fine.” (June)

Sen. Angus S. King (I-Maine): “Right now, we don’t know whether it will be abused. If they’re going to use it to obstruct absolutely everything, then I’m prepared to change my mind.” (January)

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.): “The Senate is the most unique … governing body in the world. It’s deliberate. It’s basically designed, Chuck, to make sure the minority has input. That’s exactly our Founding Fathers. And now if you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk, I’m willing to look at any way we can. But I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority.” (Sunday)

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.): “I’m not interested in watching Sen. McConnell or Senate Republicans keep us from acting if we have the chance.” (October)

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.): Indicated openness in an interview. (September 2019)

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.): Indicated openness in an interview. (August)

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.): “We have a moral imperative to the people of America to get a whole lot done if we get the majority, which, God willing, we will, and keep it in the House, and Biden becomes president, and nothing is off the table. We will do what it takes to get this done.” (August)

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.): “There are really important things like voting rights that can’t be done through reconciliation.” (Last week)

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.): “I think the filibuster’s very important, and I think it makes for better legislation, and I still believe that. I still support the filibuster, but, like I said, we’ll see what happens with the other side. Who knows what’s going to happen?” (September)

Skeptical of changes

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): “I think the filibuster serves a purpose. It is not often used, it’s often less used now than when I first came, and I think it’s part of the Senate that differentiates itself.” (September)

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.): “Bipartisanship is really important to me. I think it’s important to Arizonans, too. We just want to make the place work.” (January)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.): “What I hear over and over again from senators is not the question of the filibuster but: Why don’t we have votes on anything? I’d like to vote things up or vote them down.” (November 2019)

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.): “The filibuster is not in the Constitution nor the original Senate rules, but we have a bicameral system for a reason and this legislative tool serves a critical purpose in ensuring the functioning of our democratic republic. Yes, it sometimes slows the process down, and some have abused or subverted it. But it remains an important part in our system of checks and balances.” (2017)

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.): “I think we should keep the filibuster. It’s one of the few things that we have left in order to let all of the voices be heard here in the Senate.” (November 2019)

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.): “Retaining the legislative filibuster is not meant to impede the things we want to get done. Rather, it’s meant to protect what the Senate was designed to be. I believe the Senate has a responsibility to put politics aside and fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans. Therefore, I support the 60-vote threshold for all Senate actions. Debate on bills should be a bipartisan process that takes into account the views of all Americans, not just those of one political party.” (February)

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.): “I said during my rehiring process last year, I said it would take an awful, awful lot for me to end the filibuster. I don’t think that we ought to be coming in willy-nilly and changing the rules. … I would also expect my Republican colleagues not to come in with a single mantra the way they did under Obama, which is, ‘Let’s make this president unsuccessful.’ They want to work with Joe Biden. I think we ought to keep the rules.” (January)

This article was updated with more recent comments from Casey, Gillibrand, Cortez Masto and Stabenow (via DailyKos).