Republicans Know They’re Losing the Filibuster Fight

Republicans Know They’re Losing the Filibuster Fight thumbnail

Glacially and fitfully, the filibuster debate
is continuing to move in the right direction. In an interview that aired
Tuesday night, President Joe Biden said for the very first time that he’d be
open to reforming it, echoing recent comments by West Virginia Senator Joe
Manchin, who’s been one of the filibuster’s strongest defenders. “I don’t think that you have to
eliminate the filibuster,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “You have to
do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days.
You had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking.”

This
is precisely the change that Manchin has said he could potentially accept. In
fact, it seems to be just about the only change to which Manchin is open.
Quizzed Wednesday by reporters on ideas like lowering the Senate’s cloture
threshold from 60 votes, or exempting certain bills from filibusters, Manchin
rejected
all the alternatives. He’s for a 60-vote threshold and a talking filibuster and
nothing less. If that holds, Senate Republicans have little to fear from the
reform drive—a united caucus can collaborate to sustain even a talking
filibuster indefinitely.

That
said, the fact that political realities have brought Manchin and Biden to this
point suggests that they
could be
pulled even further if Biden’s agenda starts getting gummed up. And that
prospect has spooked moderate Republicans in the Senate enough that they’ve
joined yet another probably doomed effort to prove that bipartisanship on major
legislation is still possible—not a gang of six, eight, or even 14, but a
grand Group of 20, which includes enough Republicans to garner 60 votes on a
bill.  “The so-called G-20 hopes to
develop bipartisan approaches to issues like the minimum wage, immigration and
infrastructure, in the process providing a compelling argument against axing
the filibuster,” Politico
reported
Thursday. “If it can produce results.”

This
is the “good cop” half of the right’s strategy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of course, is the “bad
cop.” In his latest speech warning Democrats on Tuesday, he
reiterated
his promise to bring the Senate to a complete halt if they go nuclear and
offered a vision of what Republicans might accomplish without the filibuster
should they regain Congress and the presidency. “We’d strengthen America with
all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side,” he
said. “Nationwide right-to-work for working Americans. Defunding Planned
Parenthood and sanctuary cities on day one. A whole new era of domestic energy
production. Sweeping new protections for conscience and the right to life of
the unborn.”

Read a certain way, McConnell’s remarks amount to a remarkable and
consequential admission: Kill the filibuster, he claims, and Republicans will
pass policies they regularly promise to their voters but that they evidently have no real plans to pass if the filibuster
stays.
To the extent the right has a federal legislative agenda, it’s
largely a hallucinatory one. And McConnell’s ambivalence about making it real
is sensible. The policies he’s outlined are largely redundant to the policy
status quo conservatives and moderates have shaped over the last 40 years—can
you imagine what it would be like if it were difficult to unionize?—and
highly unpopular. This is why Republicans have narrowed their focus to courts,
cuts, and culture—filling posts voters haven’t heard of with conservative
justices, slashing tax rates, and spending the rest of their time babbling
about how Democrats want to cancel Hop on Pop. It remains dubious as a
strategy for winning over the broad electorate, but we’re confronting the
filibuster in the first place because Republicans’ power in the American political
system doesn’t depend on them doing so.

But
their calculus might change a good bit if the filibuster really goes away. The
basic strategic assumption undergirding federal politics in this country is that
the Democratic Party is incapable of fully utilizing the power it wins. If it
could, losing elections would be significantly more costly in policy terms for
the right, and the elections themselves might be harder to win, progressives
hope, if Democrats manage to pass democratic reforms.

So,
naturally, conservatives are getting a little anxious about where things are
headed. On Wednesday,
National Review’s Jason Richwine laid the right’s cards down and stated the
obvious: Democrats
have no strategic reason to keep the filibuster and might really do away with
it unless Republicans present a more convincing parade of horribles. “Potential legislation must seem long-lasting and
transformative if it is to function as a genuine threat, but here Democrats
have the advantage,” Richwine 
wrote. “They have
policy options that fit the ‘long-lasting and transformative’ criteria, while
Republicans have no comparable threats to wield. If the filibuster ends,
destruction is not mutually assured.”

For now, it remains
uncertain whether the filibuster will be abolished or amended at all. It’s not obvious that reform advocates in
the Senate have a strategy beyond gingerly prodding bills like H.R. 1 toward a
vote and seeing what happens. Republicans have been quite clear about what would happen if Democrats simply moved to a talking filibuster—“I would talk till I fell over,” Lindsey Graham said
Wednesday—so the Senate caucus is
going to have to come up with a better plan if it actually wants H.R. 1 and all
the rest to pass. That’s a big if, though: The promise of sweeping legislative
change has long been a useful mirage for both parties. 

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