Is Biden Preparing To Take Aim At Senate Filibuster?

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

So says Rolling Stone, which reports that the president has told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he’s ready to start lobbying moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin to support “reforming” the filibuster in order to pass the “For The People Act”; a sweeping bill that, in the words of the Wall St. Journal, would “grease the Democratic voting machine nationwide and restrict political opposition.”

According to Rolling Stone, Biden has gone so far as to tell Schumer, “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls.”

Publicly, there are two centrist Democrats who have stated their opposition to changing or abolishing the filibuster, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Activist groups and fellow Democratic senators say Manchin and Sinema are the likely 49th and 50th votes both on any voting-rights legislation and especially any filibuster reforms. Sources say both senators are likely targets for when Biden launches his final push to pass a compromise version of the For the People Act.

“I think there’s a clear recognition the president will have a role to play in bringing this over the finish line, and if in order to do that, we need [filibuster] rules reform, then so be it,” says Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped write the original version of the For the People Act. “I think Joe Biden with his long history and experience in the Senate can see that.”

The president might be willing to pick up the phone, but is Joe Manchin willing to listen? After all, Biden called Sen. Angus King of Maine to personally lobby him to support David Chipman’s nomination to the ATF, and we all know how that turned out. I don’t think Biden has much of a bully pulpit at the moment, what with his approval rating underwater and Democrats growing increasingly worried about a red wave election in 2022. And then there’s Manchin himself, who had this to say on CNN less than two months ago.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Sunday said he “can’t imagine” supporting a carve-out to filibuster rules to help pass voting rights legislation.

Manchin was asked a direct question about whether he could imagine supporting such a carve-out during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“I can’t imagine a carve-out,” Manchin responded.

He noted that in 2013, a Democratic majority backed a carve-out to the filibuster so that Cabinet appointees for former President Obama could be confirmed. That led to more carve-outs, including for the Supreme Court.

“I was here in 2013 when it was called a carve-out. We’re just going to do the Cabinet for the president, and then it went into, we’re going to do the judges who are lifetime appointments for circuit and district,” he said.

“They were even going to do Supreme Court, but they didn’t at that time. The Democrats were in control. 2017, Mitch McConnell’s in control, comes right back in and guess what? That carve-out worked to really carve us up pretty bad. Then you got the Supreme Court, OK, so there’s no stopping it,” Manchin said.

Remember, the Senate has already tried to vote on HR 1 this year, and it didn’t go well for them, failing on a 50-50 party-line vote back in June. Now Democrats want to revive the measure, but it’s unclear that there’s been any change in Manchin’s point of view. The Brookings Institute’s Norm Eisen and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein have a new piece at the Washington Post offering seven supposed reasons why they believe Democrats will end up changing the filibuster rules, but their analysis is short on actual evidence and long on wishcasting.

Second, Manchin is not as immovable an obstacle as he appears. In March, Manchin suggested that he would be open to using the reconciliation process to pass voting rights legislation if all efforts at bipartisanship failed. Our report explains how that intricate maneuver could work — and, as importantly, Manchin’s statement shows he is contemplating voting rights legislation by a simple majority. He has since expressed openness to other reforms of the kind we also outline in our paper, such as lowering the cloture threshold and shifting the onus onto the Senate minority to maintain the filibuster. When asked about lowering the vote total needed for cloture, he said: “I’m open to looking at it. I’m just not open to getting rid of the filibuster, that’s all.”

Manchin has also offered a compromise proposal in response to H.R. 1 and has reportedly spent considerable time negotiating details. A deal is said to be near, and he is actively seeking GOP support. It seems improbable that he would be spending all that time on the legislation if he were not at least willing to consider reforming the filibuster to push his plan into law. According to reports, he is getting what he wants. When that happens, he is a compromiser, as he has proved over and over again throughout his long career.

I have no doubt that Manchin would like to see a voting bill approved by the Senate, but I don’t think he’s willing to change the filibuster rules in order to pass a bill on a 51-50 vote with Kamala Harris providing the tie-breaker. As Ezra Klein argued back in June, one of the consistencies in Manchin’s statements is that he’s after bipartisanship, and Manchin has been working on a voting bill of his own and trying to attract Republican support for the legislation. If Manchin ends up going along with any sort of change to the filibuster, I’d think that it would be to advance his own proposal instead of the Pelosi-backed “For The People Act.”

If Manchin does end up doing a partial flip-flop on the filibuster (say, lowering the number of votes needed for cloture from 60 to 55) in order to get his bill through the Senate, you know that the Left would immediately demand a full nuking of the rule. Why should he be the only Democrat to benefit from a changing of the rules, after all? And if Manchin gives in, then not only would his elections bill be immediately supplanted by the For The People Act in order to ensure permanent one-party rule. Once that’s been accomplished, they’d quickly move forward on the rest of their agenda, including packing the Supreme Court and imposing a sweeping gun ban on the American people.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the idea that Manchin would engage in fundamentally changing the filibuster, even if it means his voting bill goes down to defeat, but he’s certainly made enough open-ended statements that Democrats can take comfort (and Republicans can have concerns) with the idea of him suddenly deciding that maybe a little carveout would be okay in order to get most of what Democrats are demanding. I do believe that Democrats are terrified about losing the House and potentially the Senate in the midterms, and are growing increasingly desperate to cement their majorities. Desperate people do desperate things, and those decisions often come with disastrous consequences.

Maybe I’m engaging in a little wishcasting of my own with my skeptical take on Manchin ultimately endorsing some change to the filibuster, because I think a federal elections bill that passes along purely partisan lines would be a terrible mistake of historic proportions. With Joe Biden in the White House for the next three years, we’re going to have enough of those without Congress contributing to the problem.