We’re now that much closer to killing the filibuster
The filibuster is a legislative device employed in the United States Senate to permit one or more senators to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose. It’s used to prevent a vote being taken on a bill. A filibuster can only be stopped if 60 Senators bring the debate to a close by invoking cloture under Senate rules.
Under the current rules in the Senate, modifications of the filibuster would constitute a rule change that itself can be filibustered. However, under Senate precedents, a simple majority (50 or more with a tie-breaking vote from the Vice President) can, and occasionally has, acted to limit filibusters by overruling the decisions of the chair. The removal or substantial limitation of the filibuster by a simple majority, rather than a rule change, is called the constitutional option by promoters and the nuclear option by detractors.
With the reelection of Ralph Warnock to the Senate in the Georgia runoff, Democrats now possess a much more comfortable 51-49 majority. Therefore limiting the filibuster has now become easier. Exceptions to the filibuster can now become routinely baked into Senate procedures and used when it makes sense to use them. For example, according to current Senate rules, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice cannot be filibustered.
Elimination of the filibuster altogether is also possible. Republicans are uniformly opposed to the elimination of the filibuster because it would remove their power to interfere with the passage of Senate bills from a minority position. Two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema, are also opposed to the removal of the filibuster.
Senator Joe Manchin’s stated position on the filibuster is an odd one. He maintains that without the filibuster the “tyranny of the majority” will rule in the Senate. I was unaware that majority rule represented “tyranny.” I seem to recall something I read somewhere back in school about how tyranny comes from the arbitrary rule of a minority of aristocrats, many of whom lived on yachts. Manchin apparently prefers minority rule over majority rule. The promotion of the least popular opinion is somehow more appropriate from his most unusual point of view.
The most inimical part of the filibuster is it has historically been used to block civil rights legislation. It’s associated with Jim Crow Laws and the cause of segregation. It is still used (or threatened to be used) to block bills intended to promote voting rights. With the elimination of Herschel Walker as a zombie vote, the Senate has taken a larger step toward the eventual elimination of this mediaeval practice.
One immediate benefit to a 51-49 Democratic majority is committees no longer need to be composed of 50% Democrats and 50% Republicans. Now all Senate committees get to enjoy a majority of Democrats. So votes in committee no longer have to be thrown to the Senate floor for a tie-breaking vote, a cumbersome and extremely time-wasting exigency that has shackled Vice President Kamala Harris perpetually to Washington because she needs to be available to break ties.
It would, of course, be far better that we had a 52 seat majority, thereby eliminating the maleficent power held by Manchin and Sinema. But we have cut their power in half, and with any luck we will render their power completely impotent if we can finally kill the filibuster. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.