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Biden delivered remarks on the pandemic yesterday in front of a painting of Abraham Lincoln.
How will the filibuster drama play out?
The big question hanging over Washington right now is whether Senate Democrats will allow the filibuster to stand, or abolish the maneuver and allow themselves to pass bills with a 51-vote majority. The answer will determine the way government functions in the coming two years.
Just days into the Democrats’ new Senate majority, there has already been big news on this front. I connected with Carl Hulse, our chief Washington correspondent, to get caught up.
Mitch McConnell spent much of the past week pushing Democrats to commit to leaving the filibuster alone: For a while, he went so far as to stop the Senate from beginning the basic business of assigning committees and moving legislation. But on Monday he gave up. Would you say this is another example of McConnell’s willingness to use a level of obstructionism that would have been considered extreme in another era?
I do believe Democrats were caught off guard by McConnell’s willingness to make a fight over the filibuster essentially the first order of business. They were celebrating their election wins and return to power, and wham, their nemesis was standing in their way again. It was classic McConnell, using a moment of maximum leverage to try to extract something from Democrats.
But Chuck Schumer, the new majority leader, knew he could not cave to McConnell at the start. Once McConnell saw that Democrats were not going to budge, he began looking for a way out and seized on promises by two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to not support any effort to get rid of the filibuster. They had been saying it for months, but it provided an exit and an end to the impasse for the Republicans.
Definitely a defeat for McConnell. Ending the filibuster remains a possible weapon for the Democrats.
How are Democrats responding? Is there a degree to which McConnell’s decision could backfire, by making even moderate Democrats worried that he will grind things to a halt if they keep the filibuster in place?
Democrats are definitely happy they can move on. Many have been waiting for years to chair committees, so this is a very big deal for them.
But this fight is far from over. Democratic strategists think McConnell overreached and just put more focus on the filibuster and the likelihood that Republicans will try to block many of the new administration’s initiatives. Progressive groups that want to get rid of the filibuster so Democrats can do things like expand the Supreme Court and make the District of Columbia a state say they are going to keep up their drive.
The Democratic votes are not there at the moment to overturn the filibuster. But a concerted campaign by Republicans to block big Biden moves on the pandemic, immigration and climate change could change some minds. This will probably take months, if not longer, to play out.
In the view of the officials you’re talking to, from a policy standpoint, how much rests on whether Democrats ultimately do decide to jettison the filibuster, allowing them to pass bills with a simple 51-vote majority?
Remains to be seen. I think there is still hope among some Democrats and more centrist Republicans that they can come together, get the Senate back on track and produce some legislation without dumping the filibuster. That is certainly the hope of Biden, who has staked his presidency on his ability to get the Senate to do what he wants.
And there is a very convoluted Senate budget process called reconciliation that allows some legislation to advance without being subject to a filibuster. But there is only so much you can do that way. It feels to me like push is going to come to shove at some point and there will be a showdown over the filibuster if Democrats are completely stymied.
If the filibuster is so crippling, how do we explain the two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — who have said they won’t do away with it?
Even though it has often been used to block progressive legislation like civil rights bills, there is an aura around the filibuster that holds it as the key to forcing bipartisan compromise. Manchin and Sinema definitely think that way. They are also more moderate Democrats who don’t want the progressive side of the party fully empowered, able to push through an agenda that might not be well received in a state like West Virginia.
Other Democrats worry — with good reason — that if Democrats ditch the filibuster, conservative Republicans would get a free hand when they next control Congress and the White House.
But Democrats are not going to sit idly by for four years while Senate Republicans hold up both them and Biden. If it reached that point, the Democratic holdouts would come under tremendous pressure to join with their colleagues. Minds have been changed in the past.
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