President Biden and congressional Democrats ran in 2020 on an ambitious agenda, including big promises on infrastructure, climate change, immigration, voting rights and jobs. And because they control Washington by the slimmest of margins, they have a rare opening to pass legislation expanding the federal safety net with only Democratic votes.
But for everything else, there’s a big hurdle in the way of Democrats’ legislative priorities: the filibuster.
The debate over the filibuster — whether to leave it intact, modify it or get rid of it completely — is an intense one that has ramped up as Democrats face pressure from their base to expand voting rights. Biden, once reluctant to change the filibuster, recently offered support for getting rid of some or all of it. But he would need to win over some very skeptical Senate Democrats to do it.
Let’s explore exactly why it’s the most important rule in politics right now and how Democrats could end it.
What is the filibuster?
The filibuster is a Senate rule that essentially requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.
The Senate is required to follow certain procedural steps in passing legislation. When a bill is brought to the Senate floor, any senator can bring things to a halt by speaking for as long as they wish, effectively delaying a vote to end debate on a bill. The Senate can vote to end debate with a three-fifths majority, or 60 of 100 senators. So any bill that has the support of at least 60 senators is, in effect, filibuster-proof, and the Senate can quickly move on to the next steps leading up to a final vote.
But most controversial legislation is passed on party-line votes these days, and it’s very rare for parties to have 60 senators. Democrats only have 50 right now.
Those were examples of what was required of senators decades ago. Now, a senator can simply indicate her intent to filibuster a bill and cause it to be sidelined. That means in the current Senate, all it takes is one Republican to object to a Democratic-sponsored bill, and that bill is stopped in its tracks.
How the filibuster has changed in recent years
Legislation is the last big area of Senate business to which the filibuster applies. It used to apply to judicial and political nominations, but Democrats voted to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations except for Supreme Court justices in 2013, and Republicans followed up by eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court justices in 2017.
Democrats made that first big change in 2013 after Republicans held up the nominations of dozens of Obama administration officials that needed Senate confirmation, as well as nominees for federal judgeships. Getting rid of the filibuster for those nominees was seen as a huge departure from Senate tradition — but Democrats paid for it once Republicans took back the Senate a year later, then won the presidency in 2016. That set up then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to confirm hundreds of federal judges during the Trump years, without needing 60 votes. And in 2017, eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees enabled the GOP to put three conservative justices on the court, after refusing to consider Obama nominee Merrick Garland.
That’s put the Senate on a trajectory toward slowly returning to majority rule, and the last big hurdle is the filibuster for legislation. Democrats have been considering eliminating the legislative filibuster since well before they won back the Senate in January — including during the 2020 election — and it’s a discussion that is getting louder as they get closer to moving beyond the kind of bills they can pass through budget maneuvers without Republican votes.
The case for changing it now
Democrats who want to change the filibuster caution that they might have a limited window to pass the legislation they want ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Midterms are scary for the party in power. Traditionally, midterm elections lead to losses in Congress for the party holding the White House. If Democrats lose either the House or the Senate in 2022, passing big-ticket legislation during Biden’s first term is essentially off the table.
So, they say, why not use every tool available to pass new laws now? They have the majority and the procedural power to do it. And, proponents argue, it’s a lot harder to undo legislation once it’s already in place (see: the Affordable Care Act).
Democrats also seem to expect little in the way of bipartisan cooperation — or even real negotiations — on big-ticket bills. Nineteen Senate Republicans voted for an infrastructure bill to revamp the nation’s aging bridges, roads and broadband. But since then, Republicans have blocked voting rights legislation. Bipartisan negotiations on police reform fell through. Republicans filibustered a vote to raise the debt ceiling to avoid an economically calamitous default.
Even as Democrats are pushing through massive changes to the government social safety net and measures to address climate change with just Democratic votes, they’re limited on what they can include in the legislation; the Senate parliamentarian has nixed a path to citizenship for Dreamers, for example.
The case for keeping it the same
There are a few cases for keeping the filibuster as it is now. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has been adamant he won’t vote to change it even if the rest of his Democratic colleagues do. He says it’s about forcing the kind of bipartisan cooperation that has become rare in the Senate.
“The time has come to end these political games,” Manchin said this spring, criticizing the kind of partisan procedural maneuvering that has become the norm in the Senate, “and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”
“The framers designed the Senate to require deliberation, to force cooperation and to ensure that federal laws in our big, diverse country earn broad enough buy-in to receive the lasting consent of the governed,” McConnell said.
There’s also the fact that Democrats probably won’t control the chamber forever — perhaps not even for the remainder of Biden’s term. Republicans having full power and no filibuster could result in all sorts of Democratic nightmares — rollbacks of abortion rights chief among them. Groups such as Planned Parenthood are reportedly wary of changes that could hand Republicans the ability to enact national antiabortion policies the next time they win the White House and both chambers of Congress.
McConnell’s ability to confirm federal judges at will during the Trump administration was a real thorn in Democrats’ sides, and some regretted changing the filibuster in 2013. McConnell has promised to bring the Senate to a complete standstill with procedural maneuvers if Democrats gut the filibuster.
“Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” McConnell warned in March. “I want our colleagues to imagine a world where every single task … requires a physical quorum, which, by the way, the vice president does not count in determining a quorum.”
McConnell is basically saying that if Democrats gut the filibuster, Republicans will make the Senate unbearable. They’ll make it a pain to do things as simple as turning on the lights.
Proponents of changing the filibuster say that only serves to force Democrats to make concessions to Republicans who aren’t that interested in negotiating in the first place.
If nuking the filibuster is off the table, what smaller changes could be made?
Manchin has left himself little wiggle room to change his mind on getting rid of the filibuster.
But it isn’t just Manchin — there isn’t a cohesive plan from Democrats at this point.
To change the rules at all, Democrats would need all 50 Democratic senators onboard. And several besides Manchin have been vocal in opposing big changes, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
“When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” Sinema told the Wall Street Journal. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”
Some of her Democratic colleagues say that that’s wishful thinking and that Republicans simply aren’t interested in changing.
“One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell has said.
And that’s exactly how McConnell and Senate Republicans treated the Obama administration, too. As more of Democrats’ legislative priorities are stopped cold by GOP filibusters — like a voting bill that Manchin helped negotiate in hopes of getting Republican votes — patience is wearing thin. Democrats were also frustrated that Republicans filibustered raising the debt ceiling this fall.
It’s gotten Biden to start talking more openly about at least changing the filibuster rules to carve out an exception for certain pieces of legislation. “I also think we’re going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster,” he said this fall in a CNN town hall, in response to a voter question about why Democrats haven’t passed voting rights legislation.
In audio leaked to the Intercept in June, Manchin suggested to donors that the onus should be on senators blocking a bill to explain their position on the Senate floor — something closer to the “talking filibuster” that used to exist in the Senate and that Biden has endorsed returning to.
Other Democrats want to go further, though; some want to lower the threshold for moving forward on legislation to 55 votes instead of 60. There’s precedent for that: Decades ago, the threshold was 67 votes, until it was changed in the 1970s.
Sinema might be right that the public wants the Senate to function in a more amicable way. But that would take a willingness to sit down and talk that has been absent from the Senate for a long time now. And highlighting that dynamic — and Republicans’ apparent desire to stop as much Democratic legislation as they can — might be the most effective tactic, for now, in trying to persuade holdouts such as Sinema and Manchin to change their minds.