Democrats Inch Toward Possible Historic Move on Filibuster

The fatal shootings in Atlanta last week have led one of the Senate’s long-standing Democrat supporters of the filibuster rule to say she’s now open to discussing potential changes to that process.

Senator Dianne Feinstein framed her potential shift as a back-up plan if bipartisan agreement can’t be reached on legislation passed by the House to improve background checks for gun purchases and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

“If that proves impossible and Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster by requiring cloture votes, I’m open to changing the way the Senate filibuster rules are used,” the California Democrat said in a statement late Friday.

Democrats Inch Toward Possible Historic Move on Filibuster

Feinstein pointed out that President Joe Biden himself has suggested he was open to a change in the rules governing the filibuster, and that also, last week, “we saw a union of gun violence, violence against women, and hate crimes in the tragic shootings in Atlanta.”

With Democrats now in unified control of Congress and the White House, progressives and other Democrats are pushing an ambitious legislative agenda. The Senate’s 50-50 split between the two parties allows Vice President Kamala Harris to cast deciding votes, and has made Democrat Chuck Schumer the majority leader.

But the rule requiring 60 Senate votes to end debate before a simple majority can pass most legislation is a major obstacle; as a result, the pressure and focus on the issue of changing the rule, including calls to allow just simple majority votes for passage, has intensified.

All 50 Democrats would have to be behind the reforms, however. And Feinstein, 87, has been seen by party progressives and others as a holdout, along with Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Some have suggested changes to the filibuster that could be attached solely to specific legislation. For example, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House Majority Whip, has suggested creation of an exemption to the filibuster rule for civil and voting rights legislation.

On Sunday, freshman Senator Raphael Warnock, who together with Jon Ossoff gave Democrats their slender majority with twin runoff election wins in Georgia in January, said the filibuster cannot be allowed to block voting rights legislation, citing efforts by Republicans in his state and many others to make voting harder.

“We have to pass voting rights no matter what, and it’s a contradiction to insist on minority rights in the Senate while refusing to stand up for minority rights in the society,” Warnock said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas, on “Fox News Sunday,” countered that members of his party kept the filibuster rule in place for legislation when they were in charge of the Senate, and that many Democrats supported it then.

“Republicans refused to change those rules four years ago because we respect these traditions in the Senate and we know they’ve helped forge durable, bipartisan consensus legislation,” he said.

Democratic activists in California had turned up the heat on Feinstein for not opposing the filibuster, with petition drives and other measures, specifically with an eye to passing HR1, a sweeping voting rights bill passed by the House. A similar Senate bill introduced last week has been cosponsored by every Democrat except Manchin.

Minority Rights

Manchin continues to argue his party needs to protect the rights of the minority, because Republicans will one day regain control of the chamber -- perhaps after the 2022 midterm elections or even before, if a Democratic senator from a state with a Republican governor were to depart for some reason.

But Manchin also said he would consider requiring senators to stand on the floor and actually argue, a “talking filibuster,” rather than maintaining a procedural one.

Feinstein on Friday, in referring to Biden, noted the president this week suggested returning to a talking filibuster so that opponents of a bill must speak on the Senate floor and explain their opposition.

“That is an idea worth discussing. I don’t want to turn away from Senate traditions, but I also don’t believe one party should be able to prevent votes on important bills by abusing the filibuster,” she said.

‘Act I’

Feinstein’s statement makes no mention of undoing the current 60-vote threshold, and likely won’t settle the filibuster debate. But it did represent a change for the six-term senator, and some on Saturday termed it a significant development.

“Folks, we are approaching the end of Act I. Biden, Manchin and Feinstein have all shifted in a positive direction,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, a former Democratic Senate aide and author of a book on the filibuster, “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.”

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