Senate filibuster may not survive 2020


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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and his former nemesis, ex-Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have written dueling op-eds on the legislative filibuster in which Reid called for ending it and McConnell argued for keeping it in place.

“If future Democrats shortsightedly decide to reduce the Senate to majority rule, we’ll have lost a key safeguard of American government,” McConnell wrote in the New York Times last week.

But the matter could end up being settled by the next president.

Progressive groups are ramping up pressure on Democratic Party White House hopefuls, pushing them to commit to ending the legislative filibuster if the party wins the Senate and White House in November.

The filibuster, in practice, often requires 60 votes to pass legislation. So far, a handful of Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed ending the filibuster, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and most recently, Sen. Kamala Harris of California. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, another leading presidential candidate, said he is open to making it harder to filibuster bills but has not pledged to get rid of the 60-vote threshold.

Progressive groups are urging Democrats, if they win back the Senate majority, to use the so-called nuclear option and end the filibuster with a simple majority vote. Such a change would lower the threshold for all legislation to 51 votes, or a majority of voting senators.

The anti-Trump group Indivisible laid out the “simple” maneuver on its website.

“Let’s assume that it’s 2021 and Democrats have the majority,” the group writes. “They introduce a big package of democracy reforms, like DC statehood and expanding voting rights. Mitch McConnell, the self-proclaimed ‘grim reaper’ of progressive legislation, then initiates a filibuster. Democrats can then hold a vote, and with just 50 votes eliminate the filibuster and prevent McConnell from vetoing the legislation.”

Progressives see ending the filibuster as the only way to greenlight a far-left agenda in the Senate, where the 60-vote threshold has long forced the two parties to find bipartisan and thus more moderate agreements on legislation.

Such a move would be particularly valuable if the House remains under Democratic control, as it is expected to do, and the party also wins the Senate and White House, which is entirely possible.

Harris, speaking in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this month, appeared to agree it might be time to end the filibuster. “I want to find common ground on legislation, but if there’s gonna be the obstructionist kind of tactics we’ve seen, then I’ll get rid of it,” she told reporters.

Senate Democrats have increasingly warmed up to the idea of ditching the legislative filibuster, in part because each party played a role in eliminating the 60-vote threshold on presidential cabinet and court nominees.

Democrats, under Reid, used the nuclear option in 2013 to eliminate the filibuster on most presidential and judicial nominees in order to usher through President Obama’s court picks.

In 2017, McConnell employed the nuclear option to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for high court nominees.

Now many Democrats believe the legislative calendar should employ the 51-vote threshold, pointing to likely obstruction by Republicans who would block their party’s agenda in 2021.

Reid, the former top leader in the Senate, earlier this month called on all Democratic presidential candidates to pledge to eliminate the filibuster. “The Senate today, after years of abusing an arcane procedural rule known as the filibuster, has become an unworkable legislative graveyard,” Reid wrote.

Senate Democrats, if they win the majority, will ultimately control whether the legislative filibuster will remain.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has not ruled out eliminating the filibuster if his party wins back control of the Senate. The anti-filibuster views of a President Warren or Harris would weigh heavily on Schumer and his caucus.

“We’ll sit down and figure out the best thing to do to get things done, but we have to get things done and nothing is off the table,” Schumer said in July.

Democrats, if they win both the Senate and White House and maintain control of the House, will be eager to advance a progressive agenda while they control government. Immigration reform, healthcare legislation, and climate change measures don’t stand a chance otherwise.

So far, the top Democratic candidate has not pledged to ditch the filibuster.

Joe Biden, who is leading in all polls and served in the Senate for more than three decades, called ending the filibuster “a very dangerous move,” although he backed Reid’s decision in 2013 to end the filibuster for lower court nominees.

Like other Democrats, Biden’s position on the filibuster has evolved.

In 2005, then-Sen. Biden warned Democrats not to use the nuclear option to lower the threshold on judicial nominees, arguing that the GOP would someday be in the majority again and Democrats would regret the move.

Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former top leadership aide in the Senate, told the Washington Examiner that the swinging political pendulum will weigh heavily on the minds of Democratic lawmakers in 2021 if they are faced with a vote on ending the legislative filibuster.

Laws rammed through Congress by Democrats, Bonjean noted, would simply be undone once the GOP inevitably gained control again in a few years, creating tremendous uncertainty.

“The Senate would learn a hard lesson over another 10 years or so, that maybe this is not way to do it,” Bonjean said.

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