Democrats, Converted to Filibuster Foes, Are Set to Force the Issue

Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, is lining up votes to build the case for defusing the procedural weapon, which Republicans have used to thwart the party’s agenda.,


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WASHINGTON — When the Senate voted in January 2011 on what was then considered an outlandish proposal to allow a simple majority of senators to break filibusters, only a dozen Democrats backed the plan, which went down in a flamingly lopsided vote.

A decade on, the vast majority of Senate Democrats have come around to the view that the filibuster rules — which require a supermajority of 60 votes to bring legislation to a final vote — are antiquated and unworkable, and have become the primary obstacle to meaningful policy changes that enjoy broad support.

“In the past 10 years, so many have been converted to the cause that it is now near unanimous that something radical, including abolishing the filibuster, needs to be done to fix the system,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, one of the 12 who tried unsuccessfully to rein in the filibuster in the past.

It is that “near,” though, that is the issue today. Some Senate Democrats remain dug in against any change in filibuster rules, even though Republicans are threatening to block many of their party’s most cherished priorities. Now Democrats are about to embark on a strategy to try to demonstrate to those reluctant colleagues — and to the public at large — that the filibuster is being abused by Senate Republicans intent on depriving them and President Biden of crucial legislation.

“If we want to protect the right to vote, we have to repeal the filibuster,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts. “If we want gun safety legislation, we have to repeal the filibuster. If we want to save the planet from climate change, we have to repeal the filibuster.”

After months of dancing around the issue, the Senate had its first filibuster of the year last week when Republicans blocked a bipartisan House-passed measure to create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by forces supportive of Donald J. Trump. Thirty-five Republicans voted against the commission and another eight skipped the vote altogether, underscoring how little effort it takes to block legislation under the current rules, which puts the onus on proponents of a bill to produce the 60 votes needed to move it forward.

At the same time, Republicans tied up a bipartisan measure intended to improve American competitiveness with China, even after they had had substantial input into the legislation, which is expected to pass easily. That move made clear to many Democrats that Republicans will not cooperate even on bills they helped write, preferring instead to make life difficult for the majority.

In a letter to his colleagues as they left Washington for Memorial Day, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said the Republican tactics demonstrated the “limits of bipartisanship and the resurgence of Republican obstructionism.”

ImageDemocrats are about to embark on a strategy to try to demonstrate to those reluctant colleagues -- and to the public at large -- that the filibuster is being abused by Senate Republicans intent on depriving them and President Biden of crucial legislation.
Democrats are about to embark on a strategy to try to demonstrate to those reluctant colleagues — and to the public at large — that the filibuster is being abused by Senate Republicans intent on depriving them and President Biden of crucial legislation.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Mr. Schumer said he intended to bring the filibuster showdown to a head beginning next week, by forcing votes on a series of measures that Republicans oppose, including one that was blocked by a Republican filibuster in 2014 that seeks to ensure that women and men receive the same pay for equal work. Mr. Schumer hinted that he could also bring forward legislation on gay rights and gun safety. Most immediately, he promised a vote before the end of June on a sweeping voting rights bill that Democrats say is needed to counter new Republican-led voting restrictions being enacted in states around the nation.

The idea is to show Democrats refusing to change the filibuster rules that Republicans led by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, are going to stand in the way of legislation that has widespread support, and that the only way to win their adoption is by overturning the rules. The hope is for more of the “conversions” that Mr. Blumenthal noted.

“Each vote will be building the case to convict the Republican Senate leadership of engaging in political gridlock for their advantage, rather than voting for the agenda the American people voted for in 2020,” Mr. Markey said.

It is replicating a strategy that Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, employed in 2013 to persuade fellow Democrats to blow up the filibuster for judicial and executive branch nominees. He purposefully lined up a series of votes on highly regarded nominees to the influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. When Republicans repeatedly blocked them, Mr. Reid gathered enough Democratic support to change the rules by a majority vote.

Mr. Reid was working with a larger majority than Mr. Schumer — 55 compared with 50 Democrats today — and among those he failed to convince was Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a prominent Democratic opponent of weakening the filibuster and one of three Democrats who balked at the changes in 2013.

He is not the only holdout. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, doubled down on her opposition to changing the filibuster during an appearance back home this week as she stood beside Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the Republicans who had just blocked the Jan. 6 commission.

“To those who say that we must make a choice between the filibuster and ‘X,’ I say, this is a false choice,” she told reporters during a tour of the southwestern border.

“The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively — and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine, right? — the way to fix that is to change the behavior,” she said. “Not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior.”

Her remarks drew sharp criticism from progressive activists who said the senator was naive to believe that Republicans would willingly alter their behavior when the filibuster has been so beneficial to them.

Other Democrats, though more quietly, remain apprehensive about changing the filibuster rules. But colleagues and activists believe they can be convinced to do so when it becomes clear that the future of minority voting rights across the country is on the line and that the party’s aggressive agenda is going to be stymied almost single-handedly by Mr. McConnell. Mr. Reid used private party meetings to build momentum for a change, and Mr. Schumer is following the same path.

Still, even some vocal proponents of gutting the filibuster are privately pessimistic about their prospects and fear that any gains made in June could quickly dissipate if the Senate spends July on infrastructure measures and then decamps, as scheduled, for the remainder of the summer.

Democratic senators and key aides say they believe they have made progress nudging senators like Jon Tester of Montana and Angus King of Maine, who are wary of changing the rules, toward doing so for voting-related bills, if not permanently. But at the same time, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema have proved less pliable than they had hoped. And with outside groups ready to pour millions of dollars into ads in West Virginia and Arizona to ratchet up pressure, some Democrats fear that approach will only harden their stances.

Mr. Schumer, in his letter, warned that “the next few weeks will be hard and will test our resolve as a Congress and a conference.”

Whatever the outcome, Democrats say they are now headed for a climactic moment.

“It is all building toward a showdown on voting rights, and voting rights are the precondition to every other issue being considered fairly in our country,” Mr. Markey said. “I do believe a historical moment is about to arrive by the end of June on the Senate floor.”

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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