Democrats push to kill the filibuster (again).

Could this be it?
Isaac Saul Mar 17, 2021
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Today’s read: 10 minutes.

Talk of abolishing the filibuster is back. Plus, a new form to submit questions and a very personal “Have a nice day” section.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is fending off a push to abolish the filibuster. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Correction.

Yesterday, I wrote that Moderna began COVID-19 vaccine trials on children as young as six years old. In fact, they had begun trials on children as young as six months old. No explanation needed on this one: I just read it wrong.

This is the 33rd Tangle correction in its 81-week existence and the first since March 1st. I track corrections, and place them at the top of the newsletter, in an effort to maximize my transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. Eight people were killed in an Atlanta-area spa shooting spree yesterday. Six of the victims were Asian-American, sparking speculation it was a hate crime. Police arrested a 21-year-old man named Robert Aaron Long after a brief manhunt. The man told police he was trying to “eliminate a source of temptation” that he had taken advantage of. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  2. Four people matching names on the terrorism watchlist have been arrested at the southern border since October, according to an Axios report. The arrests were acknowledged after Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) came under fire for making similar, unspecified claims during a Fox News interview. (Axios)
  3. Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam restored voting rights to 69,000 former felons in his state by executive order. (CNN)
  4. Russian President Vladimir Putin likely directed efforts to swing the 2020 election to Donald Trump, while Iran tried to bolster Joe Biden’s chances, according to an intelligence report released yesterday. However, the report notes that China “did not deploy interference efforts.” (Reuters)
  5. The Washington Post issued a lengthy correction on a January 9th report in which it erroneously reported that President Trump told a Georgia investigator to “find the fraud” and that she’d be “a national hero” if she did. (The Hill) That call was separate from the January 2nd call in which Trump insisted Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffenspereger “find” enough votes to overturn the election there. (The Washington Post)

What D.C. is talking about.

The filibuster. Again. A quick refresher: There are 100 senators. The Senate is the upper chamber of Congress, responsible for the final passage of legislation. The current U.S. Senate is divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats (two of those 50 “Democrats” are independents who caucus with Democrats). In order to pass most major pieces of legislation, the Senate requires 60 votes — which means, in President Joe Biden’s case, he needs to get 10 Republican senators on board. That’s because of the filibuster, a procedural rule that requires 60 votes to end debate on a bill and move it to an actual vote.

In the last decade, the filibuster has been abolished for Cabinet nominees, federal judges, and Supreme Court justices, which is why all of them can now be passed with simple 50 vote majorities (and the vice president’s tie-breaking vote). Biden’s recent $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill was also passed with 50 votes through a process called budget reconciliation, which allows a simple majority vote on bills that are directly tied to federal spending and revenue (one Republican, Sen. Dan Sullivan of Arkansas, did not vote, allowing the bill to pass 50-49).

Because of the filibuster, Democrats will need 10 Republican votes to pass pretty much any of their major priorities: increasing the minimum wage, police reform, immigration reform, infrastructure, climate change legislation, voting rights bills, and so on. That has a lot of Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, calling for the filibuster to be abolished. More moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have said repeatedly they would not vote to abolish the filibuster.

But the pressure is rising. The For The People Act, the voting rights bill we covered two weeks ago, is heading to the Senate, and Democrats are pining for a filibuster showdown.

Yesterday, Joe Biden said he’d be open to certain reforms, including reinstating a talking filibuster that could make it more painful to obstruct legislation. Members of Obama’s administration have become increasingly outspoken about the need to kill the filibuster, as have many progressive activists.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), apparently recognizing the tides shifting, has been warning Democrats that if they try to reform the filibuster, it will have huge consequences: “Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues. Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like. None of us have served one minute in the Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent,” he said.

There are a lot of arguments about the filibuster. Not all of them are contained in this newsletter. I wrote about the history of the filibuster here. We also covered this issue in January here.


What the left is saying.

The left is ramping up the pressure, sensing that there is momentum and movement that hasn’t been seen yet — and perhaps realizing that they can pressure Republicans out of obstruction with the threat of abolishing the filibuster.

In The Washington Post, Paul Waldman said the pressure from the left to kill the filibuster is working.

“First, it’s clearly having a persuasive effect on many in their own party, who are newly expressing an openness to reforming the filibuster or just getting rid of it,” he wrote. “Once you have to really confront it, it becomes almost impossible to defend. There are two other vivid new ways in which the pressure for reform is working: Some Republicans are expressing a real desire for bipartisanship, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is squealing like a stuck pig… And there are indeed issues where bipartisanship is possible, not only immigration and the minimum wage (Republicans won’t go along with an increase to $15, but you might get 10 of them to agree to a smaller hike), but also an infrastructure bill, which offers benefits to every state and district in the country.”

In The New York Times, the editorial board argued that Democrats need to seize this “singular moment” for democracy to abolish the filibuster.

“Bipartisan cooperation and debate should be at the heart of the legislative process, but there is little evidence that the filibuster facilitates either,” it wrote. “The filibuster doesn’t require interparty compromise; it requires 60 votes. It says nothing about the diversity of the coalition required to pass legislation. It just substitutes 60 percent of the Senate for 51 percent as the threshold to pass most legislation. If the Senate was designed to be a place where both parties come together to deliberate and pass laws in the interest of the American people, the filibuster has turned it into the place where good legislation goes to die.

“Finally,” the board added, “the filibuster is a redundancy in a system that already includes multiple veto points and countermajoritarian tools, including a bicameral legislature, a Supreme Court and a presidential veto. The Senate itself protects minorities in its very design, which gives small states the same representation as large ones.”

In an NBC News column, Lee Drutman wrote that several members are “trying to find a middle ground” with an intriguing proposition: “a democracy exception to the filibuster. That is, instead of eliminating the filibuster, should senators at least consider setting it aside for legislation protecting our democracy and the right to vote, as embodied in the For the People Act?

“The answer should be a resounding yes,” he said. “The Senate has carved out plenty of other filibuster exceptions for special concerns, like judicial nominees and budgetary bills, which are now decided by simple majority votes. And what could be more special than the very foundation of our entire system of government?”


What the right is saying.

The right is still opposed to filibuster reforms, arguing that it is needed to preserve the minority’s power and prevent a party that controls all branches of government from running roughshod over the rest of the country.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “the biggest question in Washington for the next two years isn’t about a single policy or whether President Biden will expose himself to a press conference. It’s whether Democrats use their narrow Senate majority to kill the legislative filibuster rule requiring 60 votes in order to ram a radical agenda into law with a mere 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris.”

McConnell responded to threats of removing the Senate filibuster by saying Republicans could end unanimous consent, which would allow them to effectively stop all Senate business and create a complete standoff.

“Democrats shouldn’t underestimate how united Senate Republicans would be, and how much GOP grass-roots support they’d have, if Democrats break the filibuster in a 50-50 Senate to federalize 50-state election laws, force mandatory unionization on 27 states with right-to-work laws, add two new states to pack the Senate, or pass the Green New Deal,” the board wrote.

In a Washington Post column, Marc A. Thiessen said Joe Biden “campaigned on a promise to bring Republicans and Democrats together. He not only failed to do so, he didn’t even try.

“Democrats are now trying to redefine what Biden meant by ‘bipartisanship,’ saying that his stimulus is bipartisan because polls show it has support from some Republican voters, if not their elected representatives,” he wrote. “Sorry, but that’s not what Biden promised. During the campaign, Biden pledged to work ‘across the aisle to reach consensus. I did it when I was a senator. … It’s what I will do as your president.’

“Well, on his first major initiative as president, Biden made a decision not to cooperate,” Thiessen wrote. “Ten Senate Republicans led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — enough to give him the 60 votes needed for a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority — answered his call for cooperation. Biden didn’t even make a pretense of pretending to negotiate. He held one meeting with them and then effectively told them he didn’t need their votes. Why? Because Democrats knew that time was running out to use covid-19 as a pretext for an unprecedented miasma of government spending.”

In The Washington Examiner, Jeremy Beaman said abolishing the filibuster wouldn't solve Democrats’ problems.

“Among Democrats who, during the COVID-19 bill drama, loudly supported filibuster abolition and overruling the parliamentarian, their particular motivation for doing so was to see the $15 minimum wage passed,” he wrote. “Yet Republican opposition is not what killed the wage hike. Seven Democrats, plus Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King (functionally a Democrat), voted against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s amendment to include the minimum wage proposal in the bill.”


My take.

In every issue I’ve done in Tangle about the filibuster, I’ve explicitly opposed getting rid of it. I have never bought the argument that it helps produce bipartisan cooperation (just look at the Senate right now), but I do think it helps Congress and the U.S. government move more deliberately, with more moderation, and generally speaking, I think that can be a good thing. I also think it’s an effective check on one-party control, and I just saw moments during the Trump presidency — when Republicans had full control of government — that I was glad the filibuster existed.

I’ve also written a lot in this newsletter about how I view someone’s evolving views and changing positions as a virtue, not as a bad thing, so long as it’s done for the right reasons. So I should say now that, thanks to this latest wave of debate, I’m feeling more wobbly on my position than ever before.

I watched Sen. McConnell’s floor speech on this issue. Ironically, I went into it siding with him and left feeling like his argument made me disagree with him. First, he responded to Democrats’ concerns about obstruction by threatening to shut down the entire Senate for as long as possible, which is what his proposed rule change would do. That’s not a particularly compelling or reasonable stance to take in response to one side’s insistence they should have more leeway to pass their agenda.

He then defended that argument by implying a 50-50 Senate was proof Americans want the government to be in a constant state of obstruction. “Does anyone really believe the American people were voting for an entirely new system of government by electing Joe Biden to the White House and a 50-50 Senate? This is a 50-50 Senate. There was no mandate to completely transform America by the American people on November 3.” But Joe Biden won the election by more than seven million votes, and those 50 Democratic senators represent 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republican senators. It may not be an overwhelming mandate, but it’s not “not a mandate” either.

Most bizarre, though, was his warning that the next time conservatives got control, they’d be able to pass whatever legislation they wanted, like defunding Planned Parenthood. To which my reply would be: yes, exactly! If Republicans win back the House or Senate in 2022, which most pollsters expect will happen, they will regain at least partial control of the government in just a short year and a half. And if they win back all three branches of government in 2024, as they did just four years ago, the enactment of their legislative agenda would be mostly unencumbered. Which is totally fine. That’s the deal the anti-filibuster crowd is obviously willing to make. This would also allow voters to more clearly see how the country differs under Republican and Democratic control, then act accordingly.

It’s also worth pointing out how wildly unpopular Congress is, no matter whether you’re talking to liberals or conservatives. This is, in large part, because most Americans feel like Congress doesn’t get anything done that positively impacts Americans. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the filibuster is definitely near the top of the list. The result is government rule via executive actions and major Supreme Court decisions, which everyone seems to hate. For a country that so overwhelmingly loathes the way Congress works, it’s surprising more folks on both sides don’t support a major reform like this.

All of this has provoked an odd feeling for me. McConnell is the savviest of any Republican on the planet, but I felt he was making the argument worse than I could, and he left me feeling that perhaps the filibuster’s usefulness has run its course. There are interesting proposed reforms out there — a series of votes to lower the threshold for a filibuster over the course of a few days, or expanding the types of legislation that can be passed with a simple majority — both have merit.

But I still feel hesitant to abandon my position. Personal bias is a powerful drug, and I’m hopeful that the simple threat of abolishing the filibuster, combined with reinstating earmarks, will open the door for more bipartisan legislation over the next two years. Still, if this latest slate of arguments to keep the filibuster is the best its supporters have, it appears to be getting harder and harder to defend.


Have a question?

In most newsletters, I try to answer a reader question. If there’s a question you have about politics, government, or the media, just reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to answer it, and if I can’t, I’ll reach out to one of my expert sources and ask them to answer it for me. If you’d rather not send an email, you can also simply fill out this form:

Submit a question!


Your blindspots.

Tangle has very few partners because we are very careful about who we work with. But one of them is Ground News, an exceptional app and website that tracks the political bias in news reporting. I feature parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what you were likely to miss based on your political leanings and the news feed bubble you’ve created for yourself.

If you’re on the left, you probably missed a story about teachers in Los Angeles warning each other not to share their vacation pictures while the teacher’s union sought out a safe return to classrooms.

If you’re on the right, you probably missed a story about how Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is alleging Democrats would use cocaine to buy votes.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.


A story that matters.

The New York Times released a fascinating, mindblowing visualization of partisan gerrymandering and partisan divides in the United States. In it, The Times shows how Democrats and Republicans are living separate from each other, even when they are living in the same cities and even the same neighborhoods. “As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect,” the report says. “That means, for example, that in a neighborhood where Democrats make up 60 percent of the voters, only 50 percent of a Republican’s nearest neighbors might be Democrats.” (The New York Times, subscription)


Numbers.

  • 62%. The percentage of people who strongly or somewhat approve of the job Joe Biden is doing, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.*
  • 20. That’s the number of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate — 10 on each side — who are dining together today in an effort to usher in some bipartisanship.
  • 25%. The percentage of 14-to-22-year olds who say they are on social media “almost constantly,” an increase of eight points since 2018.
  • 23%. The percentage of 14 to 17-year-olds who say they “often” come across racist comments on social media, nearly double the percentage in 2018.
  • $15 billion. The estimated price tag of Donald Trump’s border wall.
*Poll was conducted March 12-15 among 1,993 registered voters. It has a margin of error of +/- 2 points.

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Have a nice day.

The Pennsylvania vaccine scene has been a mess. My mom, a cancer survivor, had gotten an appointment pretty early on — but had to dedicate hours on end every week to do it. My dad, who was also in the first group of eligibility, couldn’t find one. Thinking he was technologically inept, I spent time nearly every day for the last few weeks trying to get him an appointment and was stymied at every turn.

Two days ago, I tweeted about this experience. A Tangle reader — Jeff from Aston, Pennsylvania — emailed me and offered to help. He said he had booked a few appointments for family members and felt like he had a good grip on how to get it done. Thinking it was a longshot, I accepted, and two nights later he successfully booked my dad a vaccine appointment for next week.

I was shocked, moved and relieved. As was my father. And I’m thrilled to have a personal story to share for today’s “Have a nice day” section. Jeff’s initial email to me included some tips on using the Rite Aid website to get the appointment (which is how he got my dad’s), and I’ve copy and pasted parts of the email into this Google document.

P.S. My dad says “Thanks Jeff, really appreciate you making this effort for someone you met once 10 years ago.”

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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