Mar 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The Democrats' two-step to filibuster reform

Tug of war between Democrats
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some Democrats hope they can use the pending fight over their massive voting rights package to convince more skeptical Democrats to back filibuster reforms, Axios has learned from conversations with lawmakers and their aides.

Why it matters: Many Democrats were thrilled after President Biden said Tuesday night he supports the return of the "talking filibuster" — but they're still a long way from any sort of meaningful change to the rule.

What we're hearing: Some Democrats think that if Republicans repeatedly refuse to play ball on substantial legislation or insist on changes that would kill the Democrats' legislation altogether, they may be able to enlist more of their colleagues.

  • The key marker is S. 1, the Senate's version of H.R. 1 — ceremonial titles for a bill the majority leadership deems to be that Congress' top priority.
  • Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) delivered a powerful speech in defense of the "For the People Act" on the Senate floor Wednesday, calling recent pushes for new voting restrictions across the country, "Jim Crow in new clothes."
  • Top Senate aides also tell Axios that legacy is a big part of their pitch to members reluctant to alter the filibuster: Do they really want to be remembered as standing in the way of the administration's ability to enact significant policy when Democrats not only control the White House but both chambers of Congress?

What they're saying: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who says she’s long wanted to make this change, said: “If the Republicans block S. 1, that will turn up the heat on taking away Mitch McConnell's veto.”

  • Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who thinks “filibustering should be rare and should be difficult” said blocking S. 1 could potentially be the trigger for filibuster reform.
  • "I certainly think that voting rights, as public policy, is first among equals," Schatz said. "It's a higher-order priority in terms of American-style democracy than any other public policy objective.”

The state of play: Several Democrats, including swing-state senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana have concerns with getting rid of the Senate rule.

  • They're especially opposed to eliminating the 60-vote threshold required to end debate and vote on legislation.
  • Manchin said Wednesday a carve-out for a specific bill like S. 1 is "a little bit like being pregnant, maybe."
  • Far more are open to changing it, but there's still broad disagreement about what those changes could look like.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of moderate senators met for lunch Wednesday, and some Republicans said they hope these meetings — and constant reminders of Biden's commitment to bipartisanship — can keep Democrats from taking action.

  • Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that if Democrats alter the filibuster, it would undermine their broader efforts for compromise.
  • Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) even discounted Biden's idea of bringing back the "talking filibuster," which would require senators to speak continuously for hours to prevent the opposing party from calling for a vote.
  • "Heck, we could all talk, I'm not sure that changes much for me. The key thing is make sure that legislation that passes out of Washington has bipartisan support," said Romney, another luncheon attendee.
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