WASHINGTON — Within a week of Democrats taking control of the Senate, a clash over the filibuster has left the chamber paralyzed. And that means some of their top priorities — like $1,400 checks and an immigration overhaul — are already in danger.
Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking the transfer of control of the chamber’s committees. In exchange for handing over the gavels of each of the powerful panels, McConnell wants Democrats to promise to stick to the 60-vote threshold to pass nearly every piece of legislation — a rule known as the filibuster.
Democrats, however, are unwilling to make that promise, a concession that could ultimately prevent them from passing much of President Joe Biden’s agenda for the next two years.
Outside the walls of the Capitol, the fight may appear archaic, a squabble over committee agendas and procedure. But the impacts could be far reaching. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants to hold on to the option to get rid of the filibuster, viewing it as a powerful piece of leverage in future negotiations.
Frustration is growing among Democrats, who are eager to take their committee gavels but reject McConnell’s demand.
“That’s a non-starter, because if we gave him that, then the filibuster would be on everything, every day,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Sunday on “Meet The Press.” “If this filibuster has now become so common in the Senate that we can’t act, that we just sit there helpless, shame on us. Of course we should consider a change in rule under those circumstances.”
The fight comes with a unique twist. If McConnell doesn’t abandon his demand, Democrats would have to eliminate the filibuster in order to take over the committees. Essentially, McConnell is filibustering the transfer of power.
Even under continued Republican control, Senate committees have been slowly processing Biden’s nominees. But Biden’s policy agenda won’t begin to get consideration until a resolution is struck.
And the clash brings to the forefront an internal dilemma Democrats were already weighing.
Progressive activists, who were already pessimistic about Republicans cooperation, began dialing up the pressure on Democrats to eliminate the filibuster before the election was even decided. The anti-filibuster Fix The Senate Now coalition is circulating talking points accusing McConnell of seeking to “kneecap the Biden agenda before it even has a chance to get started.”
On the left, some have labeled the rule the “Jim Crow filibuster” — an older version of the filibuster was a tool segregationists used to block civil rights legislation — and are warning that Democrats could get wiped out in the 2022 election if they fail to deliver on the agenda they campaigned on.
“People lived through the horror story of watching Mitch McConnell deliberately obstruct efforts to help Americans,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a vocal critic of the filibuster, told NBC News. “And if we replay that movie and not be prepared for it, and let it play out again in that fashion — big mistake.”
‘Ain’t gonna work’
Other Democrats fear that abolishing the rule could open unforeseeable doors for a future all-GOP government that Democrats will come to regret. Supporters of the 60-vote rule include Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
“Kyrsten is against eliminating the filibuster,” Sinema spokeswoman Hannah Hurley said in an email.
Democrats have some room to pass bills they like while also keeping the filibuster in place. Under current rules they could use a parliamentary maneuver to bypass the filibuster, but only for policies of taxing and spending, which priorities like voting rights and gun control likely wouldn’t fit.
For now, Democrats don’t have the votes to kill the filibuster.
Manchin isn’t calling on Schumer to give into McConnell’s demand in an organizing resolution. But he made clear he still supports the 60-vote threshold, and expressed confidence that Republicans would work cooperatively with the new Biden administration.
“Chuck has the right to do what he’s doing. He has the right to use that as leverage in whatever he wants to do,” Manchin told reporters. “They know we all have to work together. You just can’t basically be objectionable to everything just because you’re in the minority now.”
If the Senate “doesn’t work under Joe Biden then it ain’t gonna work at all,” Manchin said.
The progressive group Accountable.US, run by Democratic insiders and activists, is pressuring the party to go ahead and kill the filibuster if McConnell doesn’t relent.
“Now that it’s clear that Republicans are intent on obstructing even the simple handover of Senate committee control, we call on Majority Leader Schumer to bring the organizing resolution to the Senate floor immediately, call an immediate up-or-down vote, and not allow Senate Republicans to block the majority from moving forward with the work the American people are expecting,” Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement Monday.
‘Talk of unity’
McConnell shows no sign of backing down.
On Monday, he defended the filibuster as “the same tool that some Senate Democrats now suddenly say they oppose, as if they hadn’t leaned on it liberally for the last six years.”
McConnell’s calculation appears to be that he’s better off fighting over the filibuster when it’s part of a procedural showdown than to wait and litigate the rule in the context of a bill like Covid-19 relief or immigration that is more likely to rally supporters.
The Kentucky Republican has noted that in April 2017, several Democrats signed a bipartisan letter supporting the 60-vote rule, which they used to stymie GOP bills under President Donald Trump.
“If the talk of unity and common ground is to have meaning,” McConnell said Friday, “then I cannot imagine the Democratic Leader would rather hold up the power-sharing agreement than simply reaffirm that his side won’t be breaking this standing rule of the Senate.”