As the 117th Congress begins, the US Senate is in chaos. And Senator Minority Leader Mitch Connell is to blame.
The Senate is currently tied 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the tie-breaking 51st vote. With the Senate tied, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must put together a power-sharing plan before they can assign members to committees or start work in earnest. As part of that agreement, McConnell is asking Democrats to commit to keeping the filibuster, the obscure Senate rule that prevents the Senate from passing legislation with anything less than 60 votes.
In essence, McConnell wants Democrats to tie their own hands and commit to giving him a veto over their entire legislative agenda. And he is refusing to allow the Senate to begin its work until they do.
Democrats should ignore McConnell’s wishes and abolish the filibuster now.
As long as the filibuster remains in place, Democrats are stuck. They can use the budget reconciliation process to pass some bills, like a stripped down COVID-19 relief bill, with just 51 votes. But to pass a $15 minimum wage, or most anything related to immigration, climate change, voting rights or labor protections, they will need to overcome the filibuster. That means getting 10 Republican votes, at a moment when getting even one or two is nearly impossible.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema has said that she opposes abolishing the filibuster. This stance is a mistake. Unless the filibuster is abolished, Democratic candidates in 2022 will have to tell voters that, despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, they were unable to pass the popular policies that they campaigned on. Mark Kelly, who is up for election again in 2022, is one of several swing state candidates who will be in this position. Arizona voters are likely to find an explanation rooted in Senate procedure less than convincing.
The filibuster’s history is an ugly one: Southern segregationists were among the first to deploy the filibuster as we currently know it, and in its initial decades, it was used almost exclusively for blocking anti-lynching and civil rights bills. During Obama’s second term, McConnell began using it to block an unprecedented number of executive branch nominees, prompting Harry Reid, then Senate Majority Leader, to eliminate the filibuster for most confirmations. McConnell then countered by eliminating the filibuster’s use for Supreme Court nominees in 2017, paving the way for Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.
McConnell did keep the filibuster in place for legislation. This was a question of convenience, not principle: McConnell didn’t need to abolish the filibuster to pass tax cuts, the GOP’s top priority. As the fight over Amy Coney Barret’s nomination showed, McConnell is happy to disregard Senate norms — even norms that he himself created — if it allows him to get his way. If Democrats think that keeping the filibuster in place will protect them once McConnell is back in the majority, they are making a mistake of historic proportions.
We are facing a moment of peril almost unparalleled in modern history: hundreds of thousands have died from COVID-19, unemployment is at record levels, and urgent action is needed on racial justice, immigration, climate change, inequality and other long-simmering crises. With a trifecta in Washington, DC, Democrats have the opportunity to pass popular, common sense policies to meet this moment and improve the lives of millions. They should abolish the filibuster and get to work.