Revising the filibuster might be the only way Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., can achieve his goal of a bipartisan U.S. Senate.
Manchin, a conservative Democrat, has opposed his party’s sweeping election bill, the “For the People” Act, which would reduce voting barriers, limit the influence of money in politics, make gerrymandering harder and strengthen ethics rules. Instead, Manchin this past week fashioned a compromise that eliminates some Democratic priorities and adds Republican ones.
Manchin’s compromise proposal drew support even from prominent Democrat Stacey Abrams of Georgia, a leading voting rights activist.
So where did that get him?
On Thursday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., slammed the door on Manchin’s effort to enact any kind of bipartisan voting rights bill. McConnell said Republicans would filibuster even Manchin’s generous compromise proposal, meaning Democrats would have to come up with 60 votes in the 100-member chamber. That would take 10 Republicans crossing the aisle.
McConnell has not kept his motivations for blocking bipartisanship a secret. On May 5, he told reporters in Kentucky, “One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”
McConnell can bring a hard halt to most legislation by means of the increasingly employed filibuster, though Democrats in the Senate enjoy a one-vote majority — along with a majority in the House and the advantage of a Democratic president. Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., says the Senate will begin work on voting legislation next week.
Time was, the U.S. Senate was famously hailed as the world’s greatest deliberative body. But if Senate Republicans continue to quash one important initiative after another without even engaging in debate — purely for the sake of partisan politics — the word “greatest” can take a walk. So, for that matter, can “deliberative.”
The failure of the election bill compromise shows the Senate is not likely to accomplish much. But it shouldn’t be up to the Republicans, with a minority of votes, to dictate what passes and what doesn’t. In a democracy, the minority party is not supposed to run the country.
Manchin is correct that future Democrats might rue eliminating the filibuster altogether. If the Republicans were to regain control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency, they might take another run at eviscerating Social Security or turning Medicare into an underfunded voucher program. Without the power of the filibuster, Democrats would be powerless to stop them.
Four years ago, when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, Democrats were defending the filibuster.
But if Republicans do regain power, there is nothing to stop them from ending the filibuster themselves. And you can bet they will. They already have done so for nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A strong supporter of the filibuster, Manchin at one point said he would support no changes to that parliamentary tool. Then he said he might support a “talking filibuster,” in which the minority party could stop a bill only by debating it endlessly in the chamber, as Mr. Smith did when he went to Washington in Frank Capra’s 1939 movie.
And then Manchin reverted to saying again that he would not vote to weaken the filibuster at all. Go figure.
But last week, in a private phone call with an interest group that was leaked, Manchin indicated that he might be willing to lower the filibuster threshold from 60 to 55. He also said he’s looking for “good solutions.”
The filibuster is a Senate convention, not a construct enshrined in the Constitution. It serves a purpose — encouraging bipartisanship and centrism — but when it is too easy to use, it results only in damaging gridlock. Various lawmakers and pundits are laying out options for a filibuster that protects minority party interests without giving the minority party the power to block every priority of the party that won the election.
Manchin should really ask himself whether he can possibly achieve his dream of a bipartisan Senate without at least some modification of the filibuster.
When the Constitution was being hammered out, James Madison said the Senate would be “a necessary fence” to keep ill-advised measures from being rushed into law.
But even a necessary fence needs a gate somewhere, or nothing goes anywhere ever.
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