San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Democratic agenda stalled by filibusters
WASHINGTON — Democrats were on a roll. The House voted along party lines to make the nation’s capital the 51st state and two hours later, the Senate overwhelmingly approved bipartisan legislation to address violence against Asian Americans.
Thursday’s twin victories let Democrats display momentum just six days before President Biden’s maiden speech to Congress. Yet they also shined a spotlight on his party’s limitations in enacting his agenda.
Despite a minuscule majority, House Democrats have overcome Republican opposition and passed legislation this year reworking voting laws, toughening gun background checks and fulfilling other party goals. Yet in the 5050 Senate, which Democrats control because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote, bipartisan cooperation will be the only pathway to passage for many bills. The Senate GOP’s superpower: filibusters, billkilling delays that would force the chamber’s 50 Democrats to win votes from at least 10 Republicans to prevail. That gives Republicans tremendous power over much of Biden’s and Democrats’ agenda, and it’s fueling frustration among progressives who want senators to abolish the filibuster rule.
“Everything we love is at stake,” said firstterm Rep. Cori Bush, DMo., ticking off a list of Housepassed bills gathering dust in the Senate. “Not just everything we love, but everything we need.”
It would take all 50
Democratic senators — plus Harris — to abolish or curtail the filibuster, over the certain objection of the chamber’s 50 Republicans. But moderate Sens. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, DAriz., have opposed eliminating it, and Democrats say others in the party quietly oppose the move as well. Filibuster defenders say the threat of the tactic encourages the two parties to work together.
“The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship,“Manchin wrote in a Washington Post opinion essay this month, a sentiment many Democrats consider naive.
Filibuster supporters also say Democrats would regret eliminating the rule once the GOP, inevitably at some point, returns to majority control. Democrats in past GOPrun Senates have used it to prevent Republicans from curtailing abortion rights and in other fights.
Significantly, Biden already has won the capstone of his first months’ agenda — the $1.9 trillion COVID19 relief package, signed into law in March. In coming months, he stands a strong chance of achieving a second major triumph on his proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, which the White House says would create millions of jobs.
“The biggest pieces of Biden’s agenda, that he’s put the most political capital behind, already became law” or have a strong chance of that, said Matt Bennett, a top official with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.
Democrats passed the virus relief bill over unanimous Republican opposition because they used special budget rules preventing GOP filibusters. They might resort to the same procedure for the infrastructure bill to prevail if, as seems strongly possible, they can’t reach compromise with Republicans.
But use of the procedure circumventing filibusters is strictly limited by Senate rules. Since January alone, that’s stymied Democratic initiatives beloved by the party’s core liberal voters, including bills easing voting restrictions, reviving portions of the Voting Rights Act, tightening gun restrictions and helping women win salaries equal to men’s pay. The bill granting statehood to the District of Columbia also faces no chance in the Senate.
Under pressure after this week’s conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, senators are trying to negotiate a compromise for overhauling police procedures. A Housepassed bill would ban choke holds, improve police training and end immunity of many police officers from lawsuits.
The roadblocks have prompted progressives like Bush to continue pressing Democratic senators to eliminate the filibuster. Some top Democrats have repeatedly dangled the threat of doing just that. Liberals hope pressure on Senate Democrats to end the rule will build as Housepassed bills stack up in the chamber.