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Reforming the filibuster isn't as simple as just adding two Dem senators
Sinema and Manchin are the most obvious problems, but they aren't the only ones.
Democrats are promising to override the filibuster and codify abortion rights nationally if they do well in November’s election. They should. But it may be more difficult than their messaging makes it out to be.
This week, Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema demonstrated just how dedicated she is to being terrible. She appeared at the McConnell Center in Kentucky to praise Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and troll her Democratic colleagues. She spoke of the likelihood that Republicans would win the House in November. She also praised the filibuster — the 60-vote threshold for legislation in the Senate which blocks all Democratic initiatives — which, apparently, is more important to her than voting rights, abortion rights, virtue, happiness, or winning her Arizona primary.
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Sinema even called for reinstating the filibuster in judicial and executive appointments, because she wants the Republicans to be able to completely grind the executive and judicial branches to a halt on a whim.
“Frustration with the filibuster represents solely the short-term angst of not getting what you want,” Sinema said sententiously. “And those of you who are parents in the room know that the best thing you can do for your child is not give them everything they want.”
Unsurprisingly, most Democrats don’t think they should torture pregnant people to teach voters a lesson. That’s why Democrats have been promising to override the filibuster in November if they get the votes.
Filibuster math, briefly explained
Democrats can override the filibuster with a majority vote; that is, they need 51 votes to institute a 50 vote threshold. Alternately, they might be able to carve out a 51 vote threshold for particular issues, like abortion or voting rights.
Currently, Democrats have a 50 vote majority (effectively 51 since they have Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote). Two Democrats, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Sinema, have vociferously and enthusiastically said they will never vote to weaken the filibuster. Democrats have generally taken that to mean that they need two more votes in the Senate. Joe Biden himself made that explicit in a tweet this week.
“This November, if Republicans win control, they will vote for a nationwide ban on abortion. But if you give me two more Democrats in the Senate, I will codify Roe,” he said.
Other Democrats have argued that the party should be even more aggressive in its filibuster messaging. Josh Marshall, founder and leader of Talking Points Memo, has argued that all 48 Senate Democrats other than Manchin and Sinema should take a pledge to create a filibuster carve out for abortion rights.
“With that clarity, literally every Senate and House race in the country becomes the race that could bring back abortion rights nationwide in just four months,” he tweeted last week.
Marshall adds that Democratic senators aren’t willing to take that pledge because they don’t want to “put senator colleagues on the spot” or because they think that it wouldn’t really matter for the election. A more likely reason, though, is that they aren’t certain that all 48 senators would take the pledge.
And in fact, Talking Points Memo’s own research suggests there may not be 48 votes for a filibuster carve out.
TPM’s Kate Riga has researched the position of every Democratic senator on filibuster reform, and specifically on an abortion rights carve out. She’s found a good deal of support; 31 senators, more than half the caucus, have said they would vote for a filibuster carve out for abortion rights. Another 9 have expressed support for filibuster reform and abortion rights but haven’t specifically said they’d vote for a carve out.
That gets us to a probable 40 votes. But after that, things get tricky.
Mark Warner and Angus King are key
There are six senators who haven’t commented on the issue; they might well be yes votes, but they have some reluctance to make it an issue. And TPM lists two senators — Mark Warner of Virginia and Angus King of Vermont — as likely opponents of the abortion carveout. (Both Warner and King did publicly support filibuster reform for voting rights legislation, but have been less enthusiastic about it for abortion rights.)
If TPM is right, then Democrats don’t need two more senators. They need four. That’s not completely impossible; Democrats have a shot at flipping Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina this cycle. And if they did win all of those, that would probably indicate a blue wave that would also get them the House.
Without a blue wave, though, Democrats are going to be hard pressed to get a House majority, much less 54 senators. And that’s assuming that all of those “no comment” senators (Tom Carper, Chris Coons, Mark Kelly, Bob Menendez, Jon Ossoff, Jack Reed) are actually on board.
So, does that mean we should despair and surrender to Sinema’s glorious obstructionist dictatorship of the filibuster? I don’t think so. But Democrats should be at least a bit careful about overpromising. If you tell your base you are going to give them abortion rights if you get two more senators, and then you can’t in fact do that, people are likely to feel betrayed, disheartened, and alienated. That would be bad news for future elections, when you’ll still need people to turn out to protect abortion rights and to champion other progressive issues.
Telling people you’ve got all the votes you need also reduces scrutiny on potential holdouts. And journalists or writers with larger platforms could help by putting some scrutiny on squishy Democrats — and especially on Warner and King — right now.
That scrutiny and pressure could be quite effective. Joe Manchin, as a Democratic Senator in a very red state, has little to lose by constantly obstructing Biden’s agenda; his voters include lots of crossover Republicans who love it when he sticks it to Democrats. But purple state senators sinking abortion rights are in a very different position, as Sinema demonstrates.
In 2018, when Sinema won election, she was the first Democrat Arizona had returned to the Senate in 30 years. It was not clear exactly how purple Arizona was, or what strategy would be best for a Democrat in the state. So she decided that her best bet for reelection was to brand herself as a mavericky, buck-the-party, bipartisan moderate, who got lots of press for frustrating Biden’s agenda.
It wasn’t a crazy theory. But at this point, we can say fairly conclusively that it has not worked.
A recent AARP poll of Arizona finds that Sinema is hated by just about everyone. She has a 54 percent disapproval with Republicans, as you’d expect since she is a Democrat. She has a 51 percent disapproval with independents. But most ominously for her, she has a whopping 57 percent disapproval with Democrats.
Sinema’s own party hates her. She has no base. She is likely to struggle in her primary in 2024 — and she already has a well-funded challenger in Rep. Ruben Gallego. In January, Data for Progress found that 76 percent of likely primary voters disapproved of Sinema. In a primary match-up with Gallego, Data for Progress found her getting crushed 74/16.
In contrast, Mark Kelly, who has conducted himself as a pretty typical center-ish Dem loyalist in the Senate, won his primary easily and has a 51 percent approval rate in the state. In his race against Republican Blake Masters for November, he is winning independents 43 percent to 28 percent.
Sinema is going down with the ship
Most politicians, faced with poll numbers like Sinema’s, would readjust. Mark Kelly is right there, showing a more successful strategy for the state. If Sinema wants to be reelected, she should reverse course and start proving her solidarity with Biden and, more than that, constituents who Dobbs has reduced to second-class citizens. Even if she wants to be a lobbyist and cash in, torching your Senate career doesn’t endear you to former colleagues, or make them want to associate with you. (As Josh Marshall noted last year, most of her peers — that is, the people she’d be lobbying — were aghast at her obstruction of Biden’s agenda.)
Instead, Sinema has doubled down. She is, apparently, unable to read a room even when the message is written in six-foot-high letters on every wall. But other senators watching her self-immolate can probably figure out the lesson.
Many Democratic senators — especially Warner and King — would prefer not to have to take a vote on filibuster reform. They’re worried about losing independent votes, or about riling up conservatives in their state. But a strong showing in November, powered by voters horrified at the Dobbs ruling, could change the calculus.
Warner and King might be persuaded to make a public commitment to filibuster reform if they conclude it’s politically advantageous to do so. But that means they need to feel pressure — and the sooner the better. Biden promising to push through a filibuster carve out if he gets two more senators certainly helps. It would help more if everyone were more aware of which senators are potential barriers and started to ramp up pressure now.
It’s also important, though, to think about what happens if we don’t manage to get the votes to pass filibuster reform in 2023. The election is still very close, and most analysts think Republicans have a 2 in 3 chance of taking the House, whatever happens in the Senate.
But even if the worst happens, and national legislation isn’t attainable, Democrats shouldn’t despair, and certainly shouldn’t give up. There is a lot that can be done for abortion rights. Blue states can pass legislation to serve as abortion sanctuaries. Individuals can support, volunteer, and contribute to abortion funds and other organizations working for abortion rights. November is important, but, win or lose, it’s only the beginning of the fight, for filibuster reform, for abortion rights, and for a better country.
That’s it for this week
As I mentioned in Tuesday’s newsletter, I was planning to publish a newsletter yesterday recapping the final January 6 hearing. But it was postponed due to Hurricane Ian, which for obvious reasons is the dominant news story in the country right now. I hope my readers in Florida are staying safe.
I’ll be back Monday and resuming the normal M-W-F publication schedule next week. Until then, have a great weekend.
Cheers — Aaron