Apr 11, 2019

Senate Democrats: Hold the filibuster talk

Three Democratic senators leading the charge on climate change are throwing cold water on an idea some left-leaning presidential hopefuls are backing to eliminate a legislative rule requiring at least 60 out of 100 votes in the Senate to pass most major bills.

Why it matters: Eliminating the rule at issue — the filibuster — would empower political parties controlling the Senate to push through big policy, such as measures on climate change, more easily over the objection of the party not in control.

One level deeper: Many people associate the filibuster with long speeches, but to end those speeches, you need at least 60 votes. This gets arcane quick, but the end result of having the filibuster in place usually means either no big bills get passed in a divided Senate, or you get bills with broader and more bipartisan support. Doing away with it would make it easier to pass bills without broad and bipartisan support because you would need just a simple majority (51 votes).

What we’re hearing: A trio of Democratic senators influential on climate change said at a briefing with reporters on Wednesday that they’re not ready — at least not yet — to back such a move.

“I think we would be unwise to talk about some parliamentary fork in the road that only occurs if we win the Senate and the presidency.”
— Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)
“We should win the [climate] debate and deal with the procedural issues when it’s appropriate to deal with the procedural issues.”
— Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.)
“I don’t think it’s true we must undo the filibuster in order to prevail.”
— Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)

The other side: Democratic presidential candidates Jay Inslee, Washington state governor, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have both said they would do away with the filibuster to enact big climate-change policy given most Republicans are not seriously engaging on the issue.

Where it stands: For now, this is the kind of highly speculative “what if” discussion Washington loves. Democrats need to jump through 2 huge hoops in the next election before they can entertain this prospect: Winning the White House and control of the Senate.

The intrigue: The arcane filibuster talk came amid a broader briefing on a carbon tax bill the trio introduced on Wednesday. The measure is unlikely to pass any time soon given opposition to the idea by most Republicans and even some Democrats, but the senators hope to lay the groundwork for more substantive debate in the coming months and years.

Go deeper: How to make energy and climate policy that sticks

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