Senate Democrats: Go Ahead, Scrap the Filibuster
As the eve of last month’s Senate showdown on S.1, affectionately referred to (by Democrats) as the “For the People Act,” approached, preliminary proceedings clearly displayed all the trappings of a carefully curated show: Democrats had spent months absurdly marketing the liberal wish list as a “voting rights bill” in the mold of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. After much arm-twisting from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin agreed at the last minute to provide the 50th and final Democratic vote in favor of beginning debate on S.1. And most notably, Vice President Kamala Harris was hauled over in her motorcade to the Senate chamber to preside over the vote.
After all this, the end result was rather anticlimactic: a party line 50-50 vote that left Democrats unable to overcome a Republican filibuster blocking debate on the bill from initiating. But aside from being anticlimactic, the outcome was also completely expected. For months, Republicans had made it clear that they would filibuster the bill. Even if they hadn’t filibustered it, Senator Manchin, who supported beginning debate on the bill but not the bill itself, would have prevented it from attaining a majority in the face of unified Republican opposition.
Why, then, did Democrats expend so much time and energy preparing such a spectacle? The answer is simple: to encourage their “progressive” base to pressure Joe Manchin and fellow moderate Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema into providing the necessary votes to eliminate the filibuster once and for all. With that done, Democrats would be able to pass any piece of legislation with as little as 50 votes instead of the 60 presently necessary. President Biden has strongly favored this course of action by ahistorically labeling the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic.” Meanwhile, Republicans have stood firm in defense of the filibuster along with the two aforementioned Senate Democrats.
In spite of the Republicans’ best efforts, the filibuster will become increasingly difficult for moderate Democrats to defend as left-wing pressure continues to mount. But is this necessarily a bad thing for the Republicans? Those who believe it would be are mistakenly analyzing the situation as if it were happening in a vacuum as opposed to in the context of electoral politics. The truth is, eliminating the filibuster would have little effect on the Democrats’ ability to enact their ambitious agenda. With the Senate split 50-50, Democrats could not afford to lose a single vote on any bill they wish to pass; and yet Manchin plus a few other Democratic senators have already signaled unwillingness to back swift unilateral action on marquee issues such as election reform and massive deficit spending.
It is beneficial for the purpose of analogy to look back to the first two years of the Trump presidency when Republicans encountered a similar quandary to the one Democrats are beset with now. Faced with a slim majority, a president who backed scrapping the filibuster, and overwhelming pressure from the party base, Senate Republicans opted to maintain the status quo. Their calculus was rather simple: key pieces of legislation such as the 2017 Health Care Freedom Act and RAISE Act did not have enough support within the caucus to pass even in the absence of the filibuster and with a larger Republican Senate majority than the Democrats have now. For Republicans at the time, eliminating the filibuster would have been all risk with little reward.
The risks for the Democrats today are plentiful should they tread the course Republicans rejected years ago. Appealing to blanket partisanship is by no means the tactic that allowed their party to wrest back control of both Congress and the presidency in recent years. Out of the sitting Democratic Representatives who flipped red districts blue in 2018, there are approximately twice as many in the nominally bipartisan Problem Solver’s Caucus as there are in the hard-left Congressional Progressive Caucus. President Biden, as we all remember, made bipartisanship the central theme of his campaign while playing down the more radical elements of his platform.
If Democrats through one futile maneuver blatantly shatter the myth of their openness to working across the aisle, how will that fare with suburban swing voters? Or with center-right ticket-splitting residents of the seven House districts won by Trump in 2020 that are currently represented by Democratic incumbents? More critically, how will it fare with rural voters in the three states Trump won twice (by landslide margins) hosting Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2024? Senator Manchin knows the answer, and that’s precisely why he’s so stubborn in his insistence on bucking his party for the time being.
In fact, between 2022 and 2024 as many as six Democratic incumbents will face reelection in the Republican-leaning states of Arizona, Georgia, Montana, West Virginia, and Ohio. Democratic senators from these states who vote in favor of eliminating the filibuster would be effectively signing their political death warrants and torpedoing their party’s plan to maintain a Senate majority throughout the remainder of Biden’s term and beyond. Additionally, the move would seriously endanger Democratic Senate incumbents in certain left-leaning states like Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan, and Minnesota. Bear in mind that the Democrats’ elimination of the filibuster and subsequent attempts at passing far-reaching left-wing legislation in the Senate would shrewdly and inevitably be weaponized by Republicans through attack ads in these races.
The ultimate irony, however, and the real pitfall for Democrats lies elsewhere. A padded, filibuster-free Republican Senate majority stemming from their opponents’ potentially looming misstep could, in combination with a Republican House majority and president, be used after 2024 to pass the kinds of sweeping legislation that President Trump agitated for back in 2017 and 2018. Such victories are improbable otherwise: even with a 59 seat Senate majority (one seat short of being filibuster-proof) and control of the House, Democrats struggled to pass the bulk of their agenda during Obama’s first two years in office. Republicans who patiently await public policy triumphs of the sort that have evaded the party time and time again since the dawn of the New Deal should be salivating as they watch Democrats naively edge closer to the grand trap they are setting up for themselves.
Like the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, eliminating the filibuster would be little more than a symbolic pyrrhic victory for the hard-left. Television pundits and grassroots activists would cheer on the move and commend moderate Democrats for “growing a spine” only to be left scratching their heads asking what went wrong when election day comes around and Democrats lose their Senate majority after two years of little to no substantive legislative achievements. All the while, Republicans would be wise to reflect upon the old adage attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never interfere with an enemy in the process of making a mistake.”
Milton Zerman is the co-founder of Montalvo Analytics, a data consulting firm that has worked on major statewide, local, and congressional political campaigns in the state of California. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in history and currently lives in Washington, D.C.