Still, it’s something powerful Democrats are considering, if they can somehow get Manchin on board. Let’s explore how it might work.
How tweaking the filibuster ends the debt ceiling standoff
Republicans are filibustering any Democratic attempts to raise the debt ceiling. They’re trying to force Democrats to raise it alongside Democrats’ social safety net and climate change legislation, to slow down that bill and make it appear more expensive.
Democrats say they don’t have time to do that before a potential U.S. default around Oct. 18. Meanwhile, some in their caucus have been entertaining the idea of tweaking or even getting rid of the filibuster for all legislation. That’s naturally led to a discussion now to change Senate rules to stop the filibuster being used specifically for the debt ceiling.
How plausible is it?
Procedurally, senators could probably do it. A majority of senators can override rules by setting new precedent, and they could set a precedent that effectively says you can’t filibuster attempts to raise the debt ceiling.
But Democrats will have to win over the likes of Manchin, who called reporters to his office Wednesday to reiterate that he doesn’t want any changes to the filibuster.
“I’ve been very, very clear where I stand on the filibuster,” he said. “Nothing changes.”
Any change to the filibuster is a big change to how the Senate works. Even those who seem open to it, such as Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), described it as “damage to the institution.”
The filibuster has become the defining feature of the Senate. It allows the minority party to require 60 votes rather than 51 to pass legislation. That is what sets it apart from the House of Representatives, where the majority vote rules.
But other Democrats argue that the filibuster was not intended to allow a minority party to block Congress’s ability to avoid financial calamity. So why not create this exception to the filibuster?
How it could solve Democrats’ problems
Democrats wouldn’t need 10 Republican votes to raise the debt ceiling anymore. While they’re not on the same page for tweaking the filibuster for the debt ceiling, all 50 Democrats definitely support suspending the debt ceiling.
For various reasons, they’ve been resisting for months doing it the way Republicans are trying to box them into, by folding it into their social-safety-net legislation. To do that would probably require Democrats to put a specific number on the debt limit, rather than just suspend it. They’ve been trying to do the latter all week but have been blocked by Republicans.
Changing the filibuster rule is a relatively quicker process than raising the debt ceiling alongside a complicated, massive piece of legislation that Democrats have yet to finish. Or by creating its own piece of legislation.
So if Democrats got rid of the filibuster for the debt ceiling, it would be an easy vote to suspend the debt ceiling, and there’s nothing Republicans could do to stop them. They could accomplish all of this in about a day or two, compared with weeks for some of the other options facing them.
How changing the filibuster could create new problems for Democrats
Senators have been chipping away at the filibuster for nearly a decade, with widespread recognition that whatever hole one side makes in it, the other party soon punches a larger one. Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster in 2013 for most political appointments. Four years later, Senate Republicans eliminated the filibuster for all political appointments, to include Supreme Court nominees.
Now the filibuster serves only to stop legislation. And as much as Democrats like to blast how Republicans use it today to stop everything from voting rights to raising the debt ceiling, it’s been a handy tool for Democrats as recently as last year.
When Republicans were in power, Democrats used the filibuster to stop legislation such as Republicans’ police reform bill from passing the Senate because they thought it didn’t go far enough.
No matter which party is in power, the reality is that big legislation is almost always stopped by the filibuster. It requires 60 out of 100 to vote to overcome. Rarely in recent history does one party have that many votes in the Senate, which means rarely does legislation pass with just one party’s support.
To make one exception probably will open the door to more. For months before the debt ceiling showdown, civil rights advocates have been advocating to bust the filibuster so Democrats can pass voting rights and anti-gerrymandering legislation.
Senate Democrats who are opposed to changing the filibuster look ahead to next year, and how they could lose their tenuous majority in the Senate in midterm elections. What if Republicans take power, change and eliminate the filibuster, and Democrats have no way to stop Republican policies?
Biden himself has said that eliminating the filibuster would “throw the entire Congress into chaos.”
But advocates for this change point out that there are already exceptions to the filibuster, such as for budget-related bills, which Democrats are using to drastically expand the government safety net or to approve trade deals. The Senate has already made 161 exceptions to the filibuster since 1969, according to the Brookings Institution’s Molly Reynolds.