The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

39 senators who now support changing or eliminating the filibuster previously opposed doing so

For years, Senate Democrats supported efforts to preserve the legislative filibuster. Now some of those same Senate Democrats are considering eliminating it. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Senate Democrats are in a pickle.

With only 25 legislative days remaining before the August recess, a procedure that many Senate Democrats defended during the Trump administration threatens to derail much of their agenda: the legislative filibuster.

According to a Fix review, over the past year no fewer than 45 senators have called for changing or eliminating the legislative filibuster, which requires most legislation to garner 60 votes to pass the Senate. Seventeen of those 45 senators have called for eliminating the filibuster altogether.

But of those 45 senators, 39 defended the legislative filibuster or their use of the filibuster to stall legislation when Republicans controlled the Senate. You can watch examples of Democrats’ reversals on the legislative filibuster in the video above.

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In 2017, one day after Senate Republicans eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees — which came after Democrats eliminated it for most other non-Supreme Court nominees — more than two dozen Senate Democrats signed a letter asking Senate leaders Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to preserve the 60-vote legislative filibuster. Schumer himself called for building a “firewall” around the legislative filibuster.

“Without the 60-vote threshold for legislation, the Senate becomes a majoritarian institution like the House, much more subject to the winds of short-term electoral change,” Schumer said on the Senate floor on April 7, 2017. “No senator would like to see this happen, so let’s find a way to further protect the 60-vote rule for legislation.”

Schumer has since said “everything’s on the table” when asked in May about possibly eliminating the legislative filibuster.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced his presidential bid in 2019, he told CBS News that he was “not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster.” Seventeen months later, Sanders called for eliminating it.

Two days after Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2014, Connecticut’s Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal told MSNBC that they would use every “tactic” and “tool” available to them — including the filibuster — to prevent Senate Republicans from repealing the Affordable Care Act. Blumenthal has since called for eliminating the filibuster and Murphy has said he is open to changing it.

And in 2018, then-Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said eliminating the legislative filibuster “would be the end of the Senate as it was originally devised and created going back to our Founding Fathers.” Durbin is now calling for changing the filibuster.

“Today, nearly 65 years after Strom Thurmond’s marathon defense of Jim Crow, the filibuster is still making a mockery of American democracy,” Durbin said on March 15. “Today’s filibusters have turned the world’s most deliberative body into one of the world’s most ineffectual bodies.”

In addition to Blumenthal and Sanders, 11 other senators who have called for eliminating the legislative filibuster previously supported the procedure: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Ben Cardin (Md.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Jacky Rosen (Nev.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Much of Senate Democrats’ evolution on the legislative filibuster tracks both with the party gaining control of Congress and the White House, and with the spike in cloture motions over the past decade-plus. More cloture motions were filed during the Trump administration — when Democrats were in the minority — than during any prior Senate session or four-year-period (though most of these motions were for nominations, which were not subject to the 60-vote filibuster).

The momentum for changing or eliminating the legislative filibuster has also grown in recent years after first Democrats, then Republicans, eliminated the filibuster for most nominations, following decades of partisan fighting and hypocrisy over judicial nominees.

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McConnell has defended his move to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, in part, by pointing to the fact that Democrats eliminated the filibuster for some nominees first. But eight years before Democrats eliminated the 60-vote threshold for some nominations, McConnell himself called for doing just that.

“The majority in the Senate is prepared to restore the Senate’s traditions and precedents to ensure that regardless of party, any president’s judicial nominees, after full and fair debate, receive a simple up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. It’s time to move away from advise-and-obstruct and get back to advise-and-consent,” McConnell said on the Senate floor on May 19, 2005.

He then added: “[Democrats] want to reinterpret the Constitution to require a supermajority for confirmation. In effect, they would take away the power to nominate from the president and grant it to 41 members of the Senate.”