Senate Democrats have expressed increasing openness to reforming the filibuster, a centuries-old Senate rule allowing just 41 members of the 100-person chamber to effectively block most legislation – but while such a change could smooth the path for passing major legislation, Republicans have vowed to make Democrats regret it.
The filibuster is all-but-certain to remain in some form given that moderate Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose doing away with it.
But Manchin has also expressed openness to a talking filibuster, which, rather than allowing a senator to simply indicate they have the 40 votes necessary to block legislation, would require them to stand on the house floor and speak for as long as they’re trying to delay a close to debate.
That plan has been endorsed by President Joe Biden, a former stalwart of the Senate who has long sided with opponents of filibuster reform, but who said in an ABC News interview on Tuesday that “democracy is having a hard time functioning.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told Forbes that Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), long an advocate for reform, has lobbied him on his talking filibuster proposal, adding that he believes the idea has “merit” because “it’ll cut down on the number of filibusters.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to bring the chamber to its knees if Democrats go ahead with their machinations on the filibuster, threatening in a floor speech to create a “100-car pileup.”
McConnell said Republicans would use the many individual rights granted to senators to create delays on basic procedural steps the Senate usually takes without issue, such as requiring a 51-senator quorum – difficult for Democrats to muster alone given that they only hold 50 seats.
After Democrats recaptured the House in 2018, it was common for sweeping progressive legislation passed by the House to languish in the Senate. Democrats, now in control of both chambers and the White House, are eager to break that pattern and sign into law major bills already passed by the House expanding voting access, providing a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants and strengthening protections for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Point of order. Roll-call vote. Quorum call. Republicans object to the motion. Roll-call vote. A speech. Quorum call,” conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel wrote of the delay tactics Republicans could undertake in retaliation for filibuster reform. “Killing the [filibuster] won’t just destroy the rights of the minority, it will destroy what function still exists in the Senate.”
“It was about having been in the Senate and watching how the filibuster was used as a tactic to stop all progress,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) told reporters of her shift from opposing to supporting the elimination of the filibuster altogether. “There’s so much important work that has to get done,” she said, asking, “How can I go out and tell people ‘oh, we really need to get this done but we can’t because the Senate won’t let us’?”
Manchin, asked what conversations he’s been having with Democratic colleagues about the filibuster, cryptically told Forbes, “everybody knows my position, so there’s really no reason- there’s not gonna be much conversation.” Manchin also called Biden’s apparent opposition to doing away with the filibuster altogether “very encouraging,” asserting the president “knows this institution, how important it is for the minority to have input.”
328. That’s how many cloture motions – required to end a filibuster – were filed in 2019-20, compared to just 68 between 2005-06, according to data compiled by the Senate. The filibuster became far more common after the talking filibuster was eliminated in 1971, with the Senate going from just 7 cloture motions in 1969-70 to 44 by 1973-1974.
What To Watch For
What reform looks like will make all the difference in whether or not it truly curbs the use of the filibuster. The one proposed by Merkley would require all 41 senators backing a filibuster to remain in the chamber as long as it goes on. But, in negotiations with moderates, that could be softened to simply requiring just one senator to be in the chamber speaking at a given time, allowing them to rotate out and potentially incentivizing camera-loving lawmakers to filibuster more.