Politics & Policy

Manchin, Tester Vow They’ll Never Nuke the Legislative Filibuster

Joe Manchin participates in a mock swearing in with Mike Pence during the opening day of the 116th Congress on Capitol Hill. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
If a few red-state Democrats keep their word, the Senate’s 60-vote requirement could be safe for several years.

If Democrats take control of the White House and the Senate in 2021, repealing the Senate’s legislative filibuster would be necessary for Democrats to enact a host of their legislative priorities. Several Democratic presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have called on the Senate to scrap the 60-vote rule for that very reason. But a crucial bloc of Senate Democrats is speaking up and promising they will never vote to repeal the Senate’s legislative filibuster.

“They will not get my vote” to eliminate the Senate’s 60-vote requirement, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema told Politico’s Burgess Everett in an interview last week. “In fact, whether I’m in the majority or the minority I would always vote to reinstate the protections for the minority. … It is the right thing for the country.”

This week, two red-state Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, joined Sinema in firmly pledging to keep the 60-vote requirement for legislation.

“I’ve always been there. That’s been my position from day one,” Manchin tells National Review. Are there any circumstances where Manchin could see himself voting to eliminate the 60-vote requirement for legislation? “Never,” Manchin replied. “Nope, I’m sitting in Bob Byrd’s seat. Just read his history.”

“I don’t want to see the Senate become the House,” Montana senator Jon Tester tells National Review when asked about eliminating the legislative filibuster. Asked if he could imagine any circumstances where he would change his mind about the filibuster, Tester says: “Nope.”

Politicians are well known for saying one thing and doing another. But the comments of Sinema, Manchin, and Tester are especially noteworthy because they just won in 2018. They are not speaking under the pressure of an imminent election.

If Sinema, Manchin, and Tester all keep their word, their votes alone would likely be enough to preserve the Senate filibuster. Keeping the filibuster would ensure Democrats could not enact a variety of laws, from the Assault Weapons Ban to the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, if they take control of Washington in 2020.

Republicans currently hold a 53–47 majority in the Senate, and it is hard to imagine Democrats winning more than 52 seats in next year’s elections. Republicans are playing defense in two states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 (Colorado and Maine) as well as a few battleground states (Arizona, North Carolina, and Iowa). Beyond those five states, Democrats will look to red states of Georgia, Montana, and Texas.

Democrats, meanwhile, have to defend one seat in deep-red Alabama, but incumbent Democratic Alabama senator Doug Jones also promises he would not vote to eliminate the legislative filibuster if he’s re-elected. “I’m going to keep the filibuster,” Jones tells National Review. No matter what? “Yep,” he says.

Two more Senate Democrats who won election in 2018 also say they’d vote to keep it. “I think we should keep the filibuster. It’s one of the few things that we have left in order to let all of the voices be heard here in the Senate,” Nevada freshman Jacky Rosen, the only Democrat to unseat a Senate GOP incumbent in 2018, tells National Review. “I’m a yes” on keeping the legislative filibuster, Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey says.

But several other Senate Democrats left the door open to eliminating the filibuster. “That’s an active discussion I’m participating in,” says Maryland’s junior senator Chris Van Hollen. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand says eliminating the legislative filibuster is “something I’m spending time thinking about because there’s obvious risks when you have a 51-vote threshold when it comes to women’s rights, LGBTQ equality, clean air, clean water. So before I change the filibuster threshold, I need to think long and hard about the unintended consequences.”

“I can only imagine myself being willing to do that where persistent Republican obstruction prevented us from making progress on the core issues facing our country for a long period of time,” says Delaware senator Chris Coons. “Not the first day, not the second day. Not the first months.”

“I would welcome bipartisan reforms in the Senate rules. But I really believe they have to be truly bipartisan with a broad consensus and not forced by one party on the other,” says Maryland’s senior senator Ben Cardin.

Colorado’s Michael Bennet says eliminating the 60-vote requirement requires a “longer conversation.” Virginia’s junior senator Mark Warner says he’s in favor of keeping the filibuster “at this point,” but he also “understand[s] the frustrations” of opponents. Virginia’s senior senator Tim Kaine dismissed the question of scrapping the filibuster: “That’s way out in the future.”

How would Senate Democrats pass a health-care bill if they don’t repeal the filibuster? “I think budget reconciliation probably gives us the scope we need,” Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse says, referring to the Senate’s annual process for passing legislation with a simple majority.

Republicans used the budget-reconciliation process to pass tax reform in 2017; they repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate and opened up open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration in that same bill. But there are complex rules governing what can and cannot be passed under budget reconciliation, and those rules were one factor that thwarted Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare in 2017. Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid killed the “public option” in Obamacare in 2009 in order to ensure the bill got 60 votes.

If Democrats take the White House and the Senate and the filibuster stops them from passing any significant laws, Senate Democrats would face increasing pressure to jettison the filibuster. But Sinema, Manchin, and Tester would seem more likely than others to withstand pressure from progressive activists and Democratic leadership. Their pledges to keep the filibuster seem to be squarely in line with their political interests. As senators representing states that voted for Trump in 2016, they would want to stop Democrats from enacting unpopular laws, and preserving the filibuster would do just that.

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