Schumer Pushed by Progressives to Defy Republicans on Filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is under pressure from progressives to eliminate the longstanding filibuster rule that lets the chamber’s minority block legislation, a politically explosive step aimed at clearing a path for President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The struggle exposes fault lines within the Democratic Party as outside groups push centrist members to join progressive senators like Elizabeth Warren in calling for changes to allow Democrats to pass bills with just 51 votes. Their top target is ending the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to act on most legislation.

Schumer Pushed by Progressives to Defy Republicans on Filibuster

The filibuster fight held up Schumer’s talks with Republican leader Mitch McConnell over how to share power in a Senate that’s evenly divided. The deadlock was broken only when two moderate Democrats -- Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- said they oppose ending the filibuster, denying Democrats the majority needed for a rules change.

McConnell said Tuesday that if Democrats eventually try to jettison the rule, they would “guarantee themselves immediate chaos.” He said the Republican minority could make Senate business grind to a halt.

Schumer Pushed by Progressives to Defy Republicans on Filibuster

Progressive groups were unconvinced by McConnell’s threats. Democrats should act now to change the rules so they can advance Biden’s agenda without having to convince reticent Republicans, according to Stasha Rhodes of 51 for 51, an organization pushing for D.C. statehood and the end of the filibuster.

“What Senator McConnell proved at the very start of the 117th Congress is that he plans to use the filibuster to control the Senate and stop important legislation from passing,” Rhodes said. “Voters want to see progress and real leadership from the members they elected.”

The episode foreshadows the challenges for Democrats not just from Republicans but also among the party’s factions as they try to advance a massive stimulus bill proposed by Biden as well as his agenda on climate and social policy. Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress -- but just barely -- creating expectations for unified control of government that will be hard to fulfill.

Targeting Democrats

Manchin and Sinema, who said they oppose ending the filibuster, will be some of the hardest votes for Schumer to keep in line on Democratic bills. These senators could stand in the way of progressive goals such as $2,000 recurring stimulus checks in response to the pandemic, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

In a 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote, support from Manchin and Sinema, along with a few other Democrats from Republican-leaning states, such as Jon Tester of Montana, will be critical to passing any legislation.

A political action committee formed by founders of the Justice Democrats, a group that supported the candidacy of New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, has already started running ads aimed at Manchin and Sinema. Corbin Trent, a former Ocasio-Cortez aide and founder of the “No Excuses“ PAC, said the goal is to “hold Democrats accountable,” to support Biden’s agenda.

Schumer Pushed by Progressives to Defy Republicans on Filibuster

While there is a growing progressive “squad” among House Democrats, centrist Democrats in the Senate have taken a leadership role engaging with the Biden administration and Republicans on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have suggested using budget reconciliation, a fast-track process for fiscal legislation that only needs a simple majority in the Senate, to move most of Biden’s $1.9 trillion virus relief proposal. Some elements of the plan, including a $15 federal minimum wage, might not qualify for reconciliation, although Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the incoming Senate Budget chairman, said he thinks it can be written in a way that will get past the chamber’s rules.

‘Jim Crow Relic’

Abolishing the filibuster has moved to the top of most progressive policy goals as a means to an end.

Just Democracy, a coalition of 47 groups focused on issues like civil rights, reproductive rights and gun violence prevention, launched an ad campaign in Times Square on Monday to call on Schumer, a New York senator, to end the filibuster. The ad features a quote from Ocasio-Cortez calling the rule a “cherished tool of segregationists” and another from former President Barack Obama referring to it as a “Jim Crow relic.”

The D.C. statehood group 51 for 51 is pushing for the end of the filibuster so Congress could make the nation’s capital a state with a simple majority vote in the Senate.

The Sunrise Movement, a group devoted to the climate change fight, sent an inauguration day letter to Biden telling him to pressure Congress to get rid of the filibuster.

“If President Biden and the Democrats are serious about passing their bold, progressive agenda and helping the American people, they must abolish the filibuster now,” Ellen Sciales, a Sunrise Movement spokeswoman, said in an interview.

Varshini Prakash, the group’s executive director, served on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force that offered recommendations to the Biden transition team on how to address the climate crisis. The group endorsed Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior, whom Biden ultimately nominated.

Last Thursday, the Sunrise Movement held rallies at district offices for Pelosi and Senator Alex Padilla in California, Senator John Hickenlooper in Colorado, and Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, demanding action on progressive policies. It was last week’s swearing-in of Padilla, Warnock and Ossoff that tipped the balance of power in the Senate to Democrats.

Justice Democrats urged Biden and elected Democrats to “always go big” when Republicans attempt to block legislation. The group urged the Senate to limit the use of reconciliation and get rid of or reform the filibuster. The Justice Democrats group has backed 10 lawmakers that currently hold office, including Ocasio-Cortez and newly elected Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York

“A quick strike against the filibuster in January will set Biden up to shepherd his entire agenda through regular order, with full committee involvement and proper levels of oversight and transparency,” Justice Democrats wrote in a Jan. 18 memo. “Every other path leads to needless complications and worse results for the American people.”

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