Although Democrats have had a majority in the U.S. Senate since January, it is a narrow one — and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it abundantly clear that he isn't shy about using the filibuster to thwart President Joe Biden's legislative agenda. Journalist Hugo Lowell, reporting in the Guardian this week, discusses Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's "strategy" for showing that McConnell and other Republicans "have all but turned the filibuster into a weapon to wage bad-faith politics."
In order to make that point, Lowell reports, Schumer "is embarking on a strategy to force votes on some of Biden's most high-profile measures."
"The idea is to demonstrate to Democrats opposed to curbing the filibuster — most notably, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema — that Republicans will sink any Democratic policy, giving Schumer no choice but to defuse the procedural rule in order to pass Biden's vision," Lowell explains. "The problem, as Democrats see it, is that Republicans have effectively rewritten Senate rules to force supermajorities for bills that carry widespread public and congressional support. Filibustering bills, once extremely rare, has now become routine."
Under the rules of the filibuster, most bills require 60 or more "yes" votes in order to pass. An exception is bills passed through a process known as "budget reconciliation," which must have a budgetary element in order to qualify. For example, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was narrowly passed by the Senate's Democratic majority even though it didn't receive any Republican votes — and Biden signed it into law. But the filibuster crushed a bill calling for a commission to investigate the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol Building.
"Even as a majority of senators voted in favor of the commission," Lowell observes, "the bill's defeat at the hands of Republicans deploying the filibuster underscored the ease with which legislation can be blocked under current Senate rules that require a 60-vote margin in the 100-strong chamber."
Lowell points out that when Barack Obama was president, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada suffered the same frustration that Schumer is suffering now. Schumer's strategy, according to Lowell, is "a replica of the playbook followed by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2013 to gather Democratic support to impose limits on the filibuster, after Republicans blocked former President Barack Obama's picks for cabinet posts and the federal judiciary."
"It remains far from clear whether Schumer can find the same success in persuading the holdouts in the Senate Democratic caucus to move ahead with what is known on Capitol Hill as the 'nuclear option' of limiting the filibuster," Lowell reports. "The political moment confronting Schumer is far darker than the one experienced by Reid, who by virtue of having a larger Democratic majority in the 2013 Senate, did not need to convince all of his senators, such as Manchin, to support changing the rules."