Democrats’ Choice: End the Filibuster or Watch McConnell Win (Again)

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Patrick Reis
·10 min read
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When it comes to torpedoing a newly elected Democratic president, Mitch McConnell has plenty of experience.

In 2009, President Barack Obama took the White House with a landslide victory, sky-high approval ratings, and massive majorities in the House and Senate. After a lofty campaign and a disastrous George W. Bush presidency, the incoming president appeared ready to usher the country into a new, progressive era. McConnell had other plans, and he united his caucus in near-unanimous opposition to Obama’s every move, while continually deploying the filibuster to jam up the Senate by requiring 60 votes to get anything done. It wasn’t enough to stop everything Obama had planned: The president’s first two years included passage of an economic stimulus bill, new rules for Wall Street, and, famously, the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” But McConnell’s obstruction weakened all those measures, and he was able to thwart Democrats entirely on climate change and immigration.

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And when the first midterm elections of the Obama era came around, McConnell had another trick up his sleeve. Obama had campaigned in 2016 as someone who could unite a divided country. But by refusing any compromise and accusing Democrats of pushing a radically “leftist” agenda, McConnell and his fellow Republicans successfully convinced many voters that the ongoing divide in Washington was Obama’s fault. The tactic is a bit like throwing yourself onto the hood of a parked car and then claiming you’re the victim of reckless driving, but it worked: Republicans took control of the House in 2010 and used it to block Obama’s legislative agenda for the rest of his presidency.

Adam Jentleson had a front-row seat for all of this — and he really, really doesn’t want to watch it happen again.

Jentleson was deputy chief of staff to Harry Reid, who led Senate Democrats against McConnell throughout the Obama years. His Senate experience left him with the impression of a broken institution badly in need of reform, and he’s written a new book, “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy,” that argues the filibuster has to go. The procedure, he writes, has its roots in allowing white supremacists to thwart majority rule — and that its ubiquitous use today has allowed a radicalized GOP minority from blocking legislation that has overwhelming popular support.

It’s a timely message. President Biden is going to need to be able to pass legislation if he’s going to successfully pick up the pieces in a post-Trump America — and that means breaking the perpetual logjam in the Senate. But McConnell hasn’t gotten any less cynical since his Obama-era power play, and this time, the Republican will have far more leverage. If McConnell could dent Obama’s agenda with 40 Senate votes, imagine what he can do to Biden’s with 50.

(After Jentleson and I spoke, McConnell this week has attempted to stop Senate committee work from even getting started — blocking the Democratic majority from taking over committee seats — unless Democrats agree to keep the legislative filibuster in place for the rest of the session. So far, Democrats have refused to accede.)

To avoid reliving their Obama-era disappointments, Jentleson tells Rolling Stone that it’s critical for Democrats to do away with the filibuster. The rule allows the minority to hold up any Senate legislation unless it can get a whopping 60 Senate votes, a near-impossible threshold. But the filibuster isn’t in the Constitution and its constant use is a relatively recent development in Congressional history. Jentleson argues that if Democrats ever want to keep their promises to constituents, it’s well past time to do away with it.

When asked what’s stopping them, Jentleson’s upbeat tone momentarily vanished and a touch of exasperation crept in: “He’s very good at getting inside Democrats’ heads.”

We talked about whether Democrats would finally get wise to McConnell’s ways, how Biden could get things done in a divided Washington, what Democrats could have done differently during the Obama years, and whether Reid’s successor — new Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — is up to the task.

If you have one piece of advice for Democrats as they approach the next session of Congress, what would it be?
The Senate is a living body, and many of the rules that you’ve come to accept as normal exist because of power plays by predominantly white conservatives seeking to entrench their power to wield a veto over everything the majority of the country wants to do. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s up to Democrats to change it, and they’ll have to, if their main goal is to deliver results for the American people.

Mitch McConnell would like nothing more than for Democrats to fail to reform the filibuster because, first of all, it will allow him to block most of what Biden wants to do over the next two years. And it will increase Republicans’ chances of taking back the majority in 2022 and putting him back in the majority-leader spot.

A frequent rejoinder to this argument, even for people sympathetic to Democratic aims, is that if they “go nuclear” and eliminate the filibuster for legislation, Republicans will later use it to ram through extreme policies. Does that worry you at all?
Mitch McConnell will go nuclear the first time it is to his benefit to do so, and Democrats should be clear-eyed about that. The question is whether we use it to pass changes that are absolutely necessary. Because if we don’t do it, we will fail to pass those changes, and then McConnell will come along and go nuclear himself as soon as it serves his advantage. The idea that Republicans only do these things in response to Democrats is silly. And all you have to do is look at the years of 2004 and 2005, when McConnell was advocating for going nuclear in support of the Bush administration.

He didn’t go nuclear under Trump because it simply wasn’t worth it for Republicans. They passed their tax-cut bill through reconciliation, so they got around the filibuster. (Editor’s note: Reconciliation is another, even more arcane Senate procedure, that allows certain legislation to pass with a simple majority, rather than the 60-vote filibuster threshold. Republicans used it to pass tax cuts in 2017 that were overwhelmingly weighted toward corporations and the wealthy.)

And after that, there simply wasn’t any major legislation that they could get 51 votes for that they felt compelled to pass. (Editor’s note: The GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare stalled when it couldn’t even get 50 votes, with John McCain, Lisa Murkwoski, and Susan Collins joining all Democrats to protect the health-care law.) They got their Supreme Court justices, and they got their lower court justices, and they got their tax cuts. They were happy. But the moment that it is to their advantage to end the filibuster, they will do it. And it would be self-defeating for Democrats to hold back in the hopes that McConnell will grant them forbearance down the line, because he will not.

You look at McConnell using his narrow 2017-18 Senate majority to jam through tax cuts and reorder the judiciary and you can see why a lot of people — even people who disapprove of his aims — credit him as being a “master strategist.” But is he a tactical genius? Or is it just easier to bet against a functional government?
He’s a smart guy. He is. But he’s also operating on a playing field that is dramatically tilted in his direction. And that’s one thing that gets lost in discussions about McConnell. It’s much easier for Republicans to win Senate majorities because the Senate is structurally tilted toward conservatives. And because of the filibuster, it’s much easier to stop things from happening than it is to pass things. So, you know, he’s been very successful, but he’s playing with an advantage and a lot of cases. Part of the reason we need to get rid of the filibuster is to take away those structural factors that tilt the playing field in his direction.

When you look back on the Obama years — particularly those first two, when voters had handed Democrats massive majorities — do you think Democrats would have gotten more done if they’d done away with the filibuster right way? Why do you think that didn’t happen?
There’s no question that if there had been filibuster reform in the Senate, a lot more would have gotten accomplished: things like a public option for health care, perhaps some action on climate change, a bigger stimulus, the DREAM Act [a bill that aims to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children] — there’s a lot. The thing is, I think it takes senators time to come around to the reality that reform is necessary. And while we had many more votes in the caucus in 2009-10, there were probably fewer votes for filibuster reform then there are now.

In the wake of Obama’s victory, there were tons of smart political observers saying Republicans are going to have to compromise, they’re going to have to cooperate with Obama. So it’s easy to forget how massive his victory was, and it came on the heels of Democrats’ huge win in the 2006 midterms. So Obama came into office with these very high approval ratings and massive majorities in both chambers of Congress. It seemed like Republicans were going to have to compromise or become extinct, but it took living the reality of seeing Republicans obstruct for years for senators to come around to the idea. I don’t think there’s any question that more could have gotten done, but I still struggle to see how we could have gotten the votes to go for a full nuclear option back then. I think we almost have those votes now.

Well, Schumer has his work cut out for him. He has a 50-50 Senate split, and the Democratic party is split between a more centrist faction and a newly rejuvenated progressive wing. If you could pass along three lessons you’ve learned, both through your own experiences and from your time with Reid, what would they be?
Reid listened to the left, and he learned that the way to succeed was to hold the left as close as possible, whenever possible. He treated them like valued allies rather than antagonists. And so one thing I would say to current leadership about the left is that these are the people who go to war with you, who make or break your political prospects. And I think that, you know, queuing as close to the left as you possibly can is a good strategy for governing.

I also think that Reid was unsentimental about Republicans. Very early on, he tuned into the fact that they were answering to the Tea Party and nobody else, and that all of their pretensions to bipartisanship and higher principles of institutionalism were mostly bullshit. Schumer should be guided by that as well.

The last thing I would say is that Schumer hopefully wants to be a consequential majority leader who achieves big things. And delivering those results is far more important than any sort of fluffy adherence to Senate rules, especially those rules put in place by white supremacists to preserve the power of reactionary conservatives.

Focusing on the goal of delivering results that improve people’s lives, that should be his North Star.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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