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Jonathan Bernstein

Liberal Agenda Simply Doesn’t Have the Votes

The filibuster is here to stay — unless marginal Democrats find something they truly care about.

Not on board.

Not on board.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Bloomberg

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Senate Democrats are attempting to begin debate on their voting-rights legislation. Republicans are expected to successfully defeat it by filibuster — not the bill itself, but consideration of the bill.

It’s not clear what the next step for Democrats might be. There are several different bills in play. The one the Senate will now consider — or, more likely, fail to consider — is the sprawling For the People Act, which tackles a bunch of liberal and good-government policies. There’s also Senator Joe Manchin’s voting-rights compromise bill, which is far more focused. There’s another bill, named after former Representative John Lewis, that would restore the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court knocked out key provisions. And then there’s a new one that would address the possibility of election subversion. Also there’s the related possibility of making Washington a state.

None of these efforts have anywhere close to the support from 10 Republicans that would be needed to defeat filibusters. And as of now, at least Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema have said they won’t vote to change the filibuster in order to pass any of them.

To say that Democrats have no real back-up plan is only to say that they simply don’t have the votes. I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in the increasingly improbable arguments Manchin and Sinema give for supporting the filibuster (and Sinema’s new op-ed on the topic is particularly underwhelming). The truth is that marginal Democratic senators aren’t on board with some of the liberal agenda — and that the filibuster protects those senators from tough votes. There’s nothing new or unusual about politicians using procedural mumbo-jumbo to get out of no-win situations. For that matter, while Republican obstruction in the Senate has been extreme by historical standards, the basic idea of the minority party using the rules to their advantage when possible — and succeeding because some in the majority are less than eager to bend those rules to satisfy the party agenda — is an old and frequently told story.

What could change the situation? Two things. So far, Manchin and Sinema haven’t found something they truly care about — something they consider must-pass — that Republicans are blocking. That might or might not change. I’ve suspected that voting-rights bills, no matter how important, weren’t the most likely to strike marginal Democrats as must-pass; they just don’t fire up enough constituents. I’ve thought all along that the bills most likely to lead to procedural change would be those that could produce clear economic effects if they were blocked.

If must-pass bills (in the eyes of those senators) are the most likely to produce filibuster reform, the other possibility is that Manchin and Sinema just get fed up with Republican actions. Manchin, in particular, has been actively involved in negotiating compromises on infrastructure and on voting rights. It’s plausible that if he eventually perceives that knee-jerk Republican obstruction means that he’s been wasting his time, he might eventually turn against the filibuster, even against his better interests.

About that op-ed: I doubt that the specific public arguments that Manchin and Sinema make are all that important. Elected officials are obligated to give reasons for their actions that are based on the public good; they aren’t obligated to actually believe those explanations, or to give the real reasons for their actions. That’s basically a good thing. We don’t want senators to just tell us that they voted for a given bill because it would help them get re-elected, even if that’s what they’re thinking. It’s good that they have to tell us why what they do is good for the nation or for their districts. And because they in effect have to do that, they also need plausible stories to tell. So while it might not matter whether Manchin and Sinema believe the reasons they give for supporting the filibuster, it could nevertheless matter if events keep undercutting the stories they tell — because it might make them look foolish. In other words: One of the ways that Manchin and Sinema might get fed up is if the Republicans keep them from getting things they want; another way is if the Republicans make it increasingly difficult for them to justify not getting fed up. 

Will it happen? Five months into unified government, I still don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either. 

1. Keneshia N. Grant and Sheena Harris at the Monkey Cage on Juneteenth.

2. Dan Drezner on returning to the Iran deal.

3. At Bloomberg Opinion, Taylor Branch on Joe Manchin.

4. David Dayen on the infrastructure bill.

5. And Kevin Drum cautions, sensibly, against reacting too quickly to economic indicators — always, but especially after the pandemic.

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