Here's the long and the short of it: It's all about raw power. Senate Democrats are trying to build momentum to end or "reform" the consensus-driving legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes to advance most bills in the upper chamber -- a tool those Democrats have routinely and enthusiastically employed to their advantage over recent decades, whenever they've been in the minority. But now that they have the thinnest of possible majorities (50 seats, plus the Vice Presidential tie-breaker), they are openly discussing severely limiting or eliminating that very same tool in order to take advantage of united Democratic governance and ram through a sweeping progressive agenda while they control the White House, Senate and White House. Some thoughts:
(1) This reminiscent of Democrats' 2013 power grab, when they used the pretext of Republican "obstructionism" to kill the filibuster for presidential nominees, including judges. The GOP had turned the practice of mounting filibusters to thwart majority-supported nominees against Democrats as a form of retaliation after Democrats pioneered the maneuver during George W. Bush's administration. Having blocked qualified conservative nominees, including based on cynical and racially-tinged motivations, Democrats threw a fit when their own tactics were used against them and decided to detonate the 'nuclear option' to get around them. Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell famously warned Democrats that they'd come to regret that power grab, an admonition that was smugly shrugged off by Democratic leaders. They then sat helpless as President Trump and Mitch McConnell aggressively filled vacancies across the federal judiciary, including three Supreme Court seats, over the course of four years. They were burned badly. And now they're reaching for the scalding stove again, telling themselves that Republicans may not have an opportunity to retaliate in-kind anytime soon, and that even if they do, the GOP doesn't have an ambitious agenda that could pass by simple majority. McConnell has been helping them imagine what a "scorched earth" Senate could look like. They should listen.
(2) Even if there were no flagrant hypocrisy at play -- and there is a lot -- nuking the legislative filibuster to pass a slew of party-line leftist bills to remake the country in Democrats' image is precisely the opposite of what Joe Biden's mandate is. I argued in November that if Biden won, he would have an extremely limited ideological or policy mandate. His candidacy was based on three major pillars: Not being Donald Trump, prioritizing decency and cooperation to heal the country, and ending the pandemic. After he prevailed, Biden's victory speech explicitly agreed with my argument, saying that reducing rancor and fostering cross-aisle cooperation were among his key mandates from the electorate. Stripping the opposition party of a longstanding mechanism in order to railroad a leftist agenda through a deadlocked Senate (including outrageous moves to consolidate partisan control and power), alongside the slimmest Democratic House majority in nearly a century (House Democrats are currently contemplating stealing a seat they lost in order to marginally improve their margin) would be a shocking betrayal of Biden's fundamental promise. He may not care, but that's the truth.
(3) The excuses Democrats are conjuring to preemptively justify this seismic power play are outright insulting. During the Trump presidency, Senate Democrats mounted an unprecedented parade of filibusters. National Review's David Harsanyi offers perspective on this front, and swats down a number of the most feeble arguments leftists are offering:
Democrats filibustered the GOP when it was running the House, Senate, and presidency; they filibustered a COVID-relief bill and Tim Scott’s criminal-justice bill, just to name two. The Senate GOP had to end debate on judicial nominees and break filibusters 314 times in Trump’s single term. To put that in perspective, every other president in the history of the United States has faced, combined, 244 of those roll-call votes over a filibuster...It has also become popular to assert that McConnell would likely destroy the filibuster if given a chance. Where is the evidence for this? Republicans enjoyed complete control of the government for two years in 2016–17, and not once did McConnell even threaten to overturn the legislative filibuster when he could have jammed through all kinds of huge bills. Democrats, on the other hand, have shown no inclination to function under any consistent principle in this regard — other than perhaps the quest for power. In 2017, 30 Democrats signed a letter written by Susan Collins defending the filibuster as an imperative tool in maintaining the “deliberative” composure of legislature. Dick Durbin argued in 2018 that abolishing the filibuster “would be the end of the Senate.” Now, the second-highest-ranking senator maintains that “the filibuster has a death grip on American democracy.” Why? Because “Senator McConnell taught me that I was wrong. He managed to use and abuse the filibuster so many times and stopped the Senate in its track.”
President Trump loudly demanded that Senate Republicans blow up the legislative filibuster to help him pass his agenda. Senate Republicans refused. During the Trump presidency, a majority of Senate Democrats rushed to attach their names to a bipartisan letter insisting that the filibuster not be touched, for the good of the Senate and nation. Now almost all of those signatories are 'changing their minds' for no other reason than their new status as members of the majority, whose howling base is demanding it. Durbin's preposterous explanation is characteristically incoherent. He had to flip flop on this critical question, you must understand, because Mitch McConnell has 'used and abused the filibuster so many times.' Except McConnell and Republicans haven't conducted a single filibuster in more than six years. Between January 2015 and today, literally every filibuster has come from Durbin's party. Durbin now claims he was forced to pull a 180 between 2018 and 2021, due to McConnell filibusters that never happened. Over that same period of time, Durbin happily joined a long parade of Democratic filibusters to block everything from police reform to COVID relief to abortion restrictions to border wall funding to an anti-sex trafficking measure.
The only thing that has changed is the party in the majority. It's that simple. Republicans declined to use the 'nuclear option' on judges until Democrats unilaterally pushed that red button. Republicans refused to touch the filibuster even when doing so would have played to their momentary advantage, and even while being pressured heavily by a president with a large megaphone to do so -- and dozens of Senate Democrats lined up in solidarity, in defense of this principle. Now that Democrats have a current numerical advantage and sense an opportunity to advance their agenda, they are running away from their prior views and rationalizing it by falsifiably claiming that Republicans would do the same if the roles were reversed (Republicans literally did not at their most recent opportunity), and by citing filibuster "abuse" by the party that hasn't led a filibuster since the year that Malaysian Airlines disappearance dominated headlines (here's the likely resolution to that mystery, by the way).
(4) The race card is an especially grotesque, if inevitable, addition to this avalanche of mindless demagoguery. No shrill 'progressive' argument is complete without a nasty racial component, and this battle is no exception. Barack Obama laid some of the groundwork for this heinous talking point, breezily ignoring his own fragrant and inconvenient history with the filibuster. Figures like Rep. James Clyburn are chiming in with similar garbage, with willing accomplices in the partisan media. This is embarrassing:
I'll say it again, louder, for the people in the back: Every filibuster conducted for the last six years, including throughout the entirety of Donald Trump's presidency, came from Democrats. Hundreds of them. Democrats didn't discuss what a supposedly racist relic the filibuster was when it was benefiting their goals, even when they were using it to prevent a Senate debate over a police reform bill offered by a Black Senator from the deep South. Perhaps they were so busy signing letters about its critical importance that the filibuster's inherent racism temporarily slipped their minds, only to jolt back into their collective consciousness the very nanosecond they'd regained the barest grip on power.
(5) Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have unequivocally pledged their support for maintaining the filibuster, but a tornado of pressure if bearing down on them. Manchin, who's already discarded another bipartisanship pledge at the earliest opportunity, may be equivocating. If a sizable number of misled Republican voters hadn't sat at home during the January Georgia runoffs, all of this wouldn't be riding on vows from two (relatively) moderate Democrats, but that's where things stand. Whether giving their word means anything to those two may be profoundly tested. Soon. I'll leave you with a Senator you may have never heard of serving up a take on filibuster politics:
.@SenAlexPadilla: "The filibuster is standing in the way and it's time for the filibuster to go. I think patience is wearing thin on the last few Democrats that are still not quite there on eliminating the filibuster." pic.twitter.com/dzaPJKl3cL— The Hill (@thehill) March 21, 2021
This individual was appointed to the upper chamber by California's governor a handful of weeks ago, as a placeholder for the seat vacated by Kamala Harris. He just showed up, yet he's already talking about "impatience" over Republican filibusters that have not even happened yet, following his own party's uninterrupted six-year filibuster streak. This sort of shamelessness knows no bounds, and it's only going to get worse as a potential confrontation on the issue grows closer.