The Disappointing State of Play in the Senate

The Brookings think tank has a page that explains the US Senate’s filibuster. This is a key section:

“Senators have two options when they seek to vote on a measure or motion. Most often, the majority leader (or another senator) seeks “unanimous consent,” asking if any of the 100 senators objects to ending debate and moving to a vote. If no objection is heard, the Senate proceeds to a vote. If the majority leader can’t secure the consent of all 100 senators, the leader (or another senator) typically files a cloture motion, which then requires 60 votes to adopt. If fewer than 60 senators—a supermajority of the chamber—support cloture, that’s when we often say that a measure has been filibustered” [meaning the measure won’t be debated, voted on or adopted].

“While much of the Senate’s business now requires the filing of cloture motions, there are some important exceptions. One involves nominations to executive branch positions and federal judgeships on which, thanks to two procedural changes adopted in 2013 and 2017, only a simple majority is required to end debate. A second includes certain types of legislation for which Congress has previously written into law special procedures that limit the amount time for debate. Because there is a specified amount of time for debate in these cases, there is no need to use cloture to cut off debate. Perhaps the best known and most consequential example of these are special budget rules, known as the budget reconciliation process, that allow a simple majority to adopt certain bills addressing entitlement spending and revenue provisions, thereby prohibiting a filibuster.”

Unquote. The upshot is that senators cannot filibuster the two things Republicans most care about, appointing judges and cutting taxes (odd how that worked out). 

To avoid a Republican filibuster, the Democrats are trying to use the budget reconciliation process to pass Biden’s very important Build Back Better act by a simple majority (meaning 50 Democratic “yes” votes, followed by Vice President Harris voting “yes” to break the 50-50 tie). But one Democratic senator still won’t provide the 50th vote the Democrats need. 

They also want to pass voting rights legislation to protect what’s left of American democracy. They can’t use the budget reconciliation process for voting rights, so they need a different way to get around a Republican filibuster. The only way to do that is for the 50 Democrats (and VP Harris) to change Senate rules to make voting rights legislation an exception to the filibuster (in the same way judges and tax cuts are exceptions). But one or two Democratic senators still won’t provide the 49th and 50th vote the Democrats need. 

From today’s Crooked Media “What a Day” newsletter:

With Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) blocking passage of the Build Back Better Act, Senate Democrats have gamely pivoted to the voting-rights legislation also blocked by Manchin and Sinema. Get in, loser, we’re going nowhere in a different direction! 

  • Final negotiations on the reconciliation package appear to have ground to a halt, as Manchin’s objections to temporary programs (including the temporary child-tax-credit extension) and overall price tag thwart Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s plan to get it passed by Christmas. The final monthly payment authorized under the current expanded child tax credit went out on Wednesday; Congress would need to extend the program by December 28 to keep the payments on track in January. 
  • Anxious to get something done, some Senate Democrats have announced a new push to pass their elections bill, despite still needing unanimous agreement on changing filibuster rules to do so. Schumer said on Thursday that he hopes to get voting legislation passed “in time for the 2022 elections,” tacitly acknowledging that there’s no way a bill makes it to President Biden’s desk before the end of the year. 
  • On the one hand, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) made a terrific point on the Senate floor this week, after lawmakers approved a filibuster [exception] to raise the debt ceiling: “I believe that it is misplaced to change the Senate rules only for the benefit of the economy when the warning lights on our democracy are flashing at the same time. I happen to believe that our democracy is at least as important as the economy.” Hard to fault that logic!

On the other hand, there’s no indication that Manchin and Sinema have come around to the rule changes necessary to pass the bills they say they support. 

  • Manchin indicated on Tuesday that he’s still not open to reforming the filibuster to pass voting-rights legislation unless there are Republican votes to do so, to the gleeful cackles of Republicans everywhere. A Sinema spokesperson ruined everyone’s holidays by announcing Wednesday that she “continues to support the Senate’s 60-vote threshold,” though Democrats are discussing narrow filibuster reforms and not outright abolition, so it’s worth noting that Sinema’s office also called for “the Senate to publicly debate its rules, including the filibuster, so senators and all Americans can hear and fully consider such ideas, concerns, and consequences.” It’s not, like, a lot of hope, but at this point we’ll settle for vaguely hope-scented. 
  • Schumer may not have an obvious plan to get voting bills passed before the midterms, but he’s right to want to. Democrats may have owned themselves out of their House majority by refusing to gerrymander as aggressively as Republicans in the handful of states where they had the chance, in the absence of redistricting reforms. The decision of just five blue states—California, Colorado, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington—to switch over to nonpartisan redistricting commissions will cost House Democrats 10-15 seats, according to trusted redistricting nerd Dave Wasserman. It’s entirely possible that Republicans will gain control with a smaller margin than that.

To quote Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) this morning, “a 50-50 Senate sucks and we can’t get things done.” Rather than unconvincingly pretending otherwise until it’s time for another vacation, Senate Democrats might as well be clear about the fact that two of their members are abetting the GOP assault on democracy, and at some point make them go on the record about it.

Bernie Sanders Can Now Get Stuff Done (In Theory)

It’s just one of the encouraging changes in Washington. From The Guardian:

As Democrats take control of the Senate, Bernie Sanders has taken on his new role as chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee. [Correction: No, he hasn’t. The Republican leader in the Senate is using the threat of a filibuster to stop Democrats from becoming committee chairmen. See “So Much For Unity — U.S. Senate Edition”. I assume this is a temporary problem.]

At the helm of the Budget Committee, Sanders will be in charge of the reconciliation process, which allows Congress to move through legislation without the 60-vote supermajority needed to overcome filibuster. Reconciliation can be used to move through key coronavirus relief measures, including stimulus payments.

Sanders has said that he’d love for a bipartisan effort on coronavirus relief, but he won’t let a desire for bipartisanship delay action.

“We should hear what my Republican colleagues have to say, but we are not going to spend months and months and not address the incredible pain millions of families are experiencing,” Sanders said.

Senator Sanders described his goals in The Guardian today:

In this moment of unprecedented crises, Congress and the Biden administration must respond through unprecedented action. No more business as usual. No more same old, same old.

Democrats, who will now control the White House, the Senate and the House, must summon the courage to demonstrate to the American people that government can effectively and rapidly respond to their pain and anxiety. As the incoming chairman of the Senate budget committee that is exactly what I intend to do.

What does all of this mean for the average American?

It means that we aggressively crush the pandemic and enable the American people to return to their jobs and schools. This will require a federally-led emergency program to produce the quantity of vaccines that we need and get them into people’s arms as quickly as possible.

It means that during the severe economic downturn we’re experiencing, we must make sure that all Americans have the financial resources they need to live with dignity. We must increase the $600 in direct payments for every working-class adult and child that was recently passed to $2,000, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expand unemployment benefits and prevent eviction, homelessness and hunger.

It means that, during this raging pandemic, we must guarantee healthcare to all. We must also end the international embarrassment of the United States being the only major country on Earth not to provide paid family and medical leave to workers.

It means making pre-kindergarten and childcare universal and available to every family in America.

Despite what you may have heard, there is no reason why we cannot do all of these things. Through budget reconciliation, a process that only requires a majority vote in the Senate, we can act quickly and pass this emergency legislation.

But that is not enough. This year we must also pass a second reconciliation bill that deals with the major structural changes that our country desperately needs. Ultimately, we must confront the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality and create a country that works for all and not just the few. Americans should no longer be denied basic economic rights that are guaranteed to people in virtually every other major country.

This means using a second reconciliation bill to create millions of good-paying jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and constructing affordable housing, modernizing our schools, combatting climate change and making massive investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

It means making public colleges, universities, trade schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities tuition-free and forcefully addressing the outrageous level of student debt for working families.

And it means making the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations pay their fair share of taxes. We cannot continue to allow profitable corporations like Amazon to make billions of dollars in taxes and pay nothing in net federal income taxes. And billionaires cannot be allowed to pay a lower tax rate than working-class Americans. We need real tax reform.

There is no reason Joe Biden could not sign into law two major bills that will accomplish most of the goals I listed above within the first 100 days of the new Congress. We cannot allow Mitch McConnell and the Republican leadership to sabotage legislation that would improve the lives of millions of working Americans and is wildly popular.

Let us never forget. When Republicans controlled the Senate, they used the reconciliation process to pass trillions of dollars in tax breaks primarily to the top 1% and multinational corporations. Further, they were able to confirm three rightwing US supreme court judges over a very short period of time by a simple majority vote.

If the Republicans could use the reconciliation process to protect the wealthy and the powerful, we can use it to protect working families, the sick, the elderly, the disabled and the poor.

Unquote.

Now all the Democrats have to do is to overcome McConnell’s scheme, so Sanders and his Democratic colleagues actually become committee chairmen.