Debate rages over US Senate filibuster, legislative “weapons of mass destruction”

The Senate filibuster, a major cause of US political locks, has been the subject of fierce fighting in Washington. On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said he wanted to reform it, the same day that GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promised “burnt land” if it was abolished.

On Tuesday, Biden announced plans to reform the filibuster, the controversial parliamentary procedure that could block or delay Senate action, after a chorus of Democrats expressed their desire to scrap it.

“I do not think you need to eliminate the filibuster,” he told ABC News. But the Senate should return to the system used “back in the old days” when “you had to stand up and command the word; you had to keep talking ”.

“You have to work for filibusters,” the president continued. “It has come to the point where democracy is difficult to function.”

The previous day, the second Democrat in the Senate, the majority whip Dick Durbin, used stronger rhetoric than Biden. The Filibuster “mocks democracy”, he told the House.

Biden’s statement came just hours after McConnell said the GOP would retaliate for its abolition: “This chaos would not open the way for liberal change; it would not open an explicit way for Biden’s presidency to get into the history books, he told the Senate. The house would be “like a pileup with 100 cars – nothing moves”.

No one serving in this House can even begin […] to imagine what a completely burned earth senate would look like, McConnell continued.

Since the Senate hangs on a 50 to 50 balance between Republicans and Democrats, most of the legislation in the expansive program that Biden hopes to implement would require 10 GOP senators to cross the aisle to stop a filibuster. Analysts see it as an unlikely possibility.

The filibuster was strengthened by the “two-track” procedure that began in 1970. This means that the threat from the filibuster alone can stop a bill that is considered unlikely to win 60 votes – with senators who can make that threat without even speaking on the floor. .

In recent years, both parties have raised their use of filibusters when they are in the minority in the Senate. When George W. Bush was in the White House, Senate Democrats often began distributing filibusters to block the Bush administration and federal justice candidates. Republicans cried foul. But when Obama took office, they used the same obstruction technique – as did the Democrats after Donald Trump replaced Obama.

When Trump was in office, Democrats were “very comfortable with how the filibuster worked,” moderate Republican Senator Mitt Romney said on Tuesday.

The escalation of filibusters on both sides is “an expression of the increasing polarization” in US policy after the 1980s, says Robert Singh, professor of American politics at Birkbeck, University of London. “For Biden, wanting to reform the filibuster is the logical conclusion of the polarization, because he understands that with the Senate bound, Republicans can use the filibuster to frustrate his ambitious agenda.”

Advocates for maintaining filibusters in both parties have long said that it encourages two-party cooperation. But the intensifying polarization over the past three decades has undermined this idea, Singh argued: “Before there was a feeling that someone filibustering a bill did so on the basis of principles, but now that position is difficult to maintain when we see both parties. to use it as a weapon of mass destruction to stop the other side from getting what it wants. ”

‘A short-term investment’

In this context, it seems that Biden and some other powerful Democrats would see getting rid of filibusters like a double-edged sword. Senator Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Alaska and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia have both pledged to keep the filibuster. Manchin’s statements on the issue have been direct: “You can not get rid of the filibuster if you do not intend to destroy the Senate,” he said on March 16.

Abolishing filibusters is one of the few changes the Senate can make by simple majority vote. But given the current 50/50 split, Sinema and Manchin’s opposition would preserve the filibuster from all democratic efforts to scrap it.

“There is a principled element in this attitude,” Singh said. “I think they really believe that filibuster is important to the Senate, that it protects minority rights, and that when the GOP is in control, Democrats can use it to oppose Republicans.”

“Biden seems to think the same thing: abolishing filibusters would be a short-term venture, that if and when the Democrats are in a minority, they risk the GOP riding on them,” Singh continued. “But if we see the filibuster remain, we can see tremendous pressure from the rest of the Democrats.”

Several other Democratic senators are skeptical of weakening the filibuster. Lowering the threshold for 60 votes could give a lot of power to GOP majorities in the future, and that’s “one of the reasons I’ve hesitant,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

It remains to be seen how Biden and like-minded politicians could chart a successful course between Scylla for legislative locks and a potential Charybdis where each party uses Senate majorities and control of the White House to pass laws that the other considers deeply distasteful. Recent history has not long been controlled by a party; the election has bounced from one to the other five times since 2000.

Given Washington’s intense partisan stance, the president’s proposal to bring back the ‘talking filibuster’ would be a troublesome halfway house between the status quo and the shoulder mechanism, Singh said: “You could argue that it would actually strengthen filibusters by make it harder for senators to participate in this process. “

Since polarization made bipartisan legislation a rarity in the 1990s, the presidents’ main tool for circumventing grid caps has been a recondite procedure known as “budget reconciliation.” This allows certain laws related to taxes and spending to pass the Senate by majority vote.

Biden used reconciliation to get his $ 1.9 trillion Covid-19 financial stimulus on March 6th. Likewise, Bill Clinton passed his welfare reform through reconciliation. Bush Jr. and Trump used it to get his tax cuts signed into law, as did Obama with aspects of his Affordable Care Act called Obamacare.

However, Biden’s stimulus bill could not anchor the $ 15 per hour bill. The Senate MP, an impartial ombudsman, ruled that it would have disqualified the Reconciliation Bill.

This points to the awkward nature of leaning towards reconciliation, Singh noted: “The question of what is and is not a budgetary issue involving taxes and expenditure is ambiguous. When reconciliation was used to get Obamacare through, it seemed like a stretch for many observers – and it’s the same with the Biden stimulus; some parts were not necessarily budgetary.