I’m Intentionally Avoiding This Topic

It’s too damn depressing. But for the record, here are two stories from the front page of The New York Times:

— With Florida Bill, Republicans Continue Unrelenting Push to Restrict Voting

Republican lawmakers are marching ahead to overhaul voting systems in states where they control the government, Next up: Texas

— G.O.P. Seeks to Empower Poll Watchers, Raising Intimidation Worries

As Republican lawmakers seek to make voting harder and more confusing, they are simultaneously making a push to grant more autonomy to partisan poll watchers. In the past, poll watchers have been used to intimidate voters and harass workers.

One from The Washington Post:

— As [ex-president] seizes on Arizona ballot audit, election officials fear partisan vote counts could be the norm in future elections

The GOP-backed recount of Maricopa County’s ballots has been criticized for abandoning state guidelines and allowing the rules to be set by a private contractor who promoted claims that the election was stolen.

And a full story from The Guardian:

— Why a filibuster showdown in the US Senate is unavoidable

During Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, there are few issues more pressing than the escalating attack on the right to vote in America. Democrats may be running out of time to address it.

As Republicans have pushed more than 360 bills across the country to restrict access to the ballot, the president and Democrats have strongly condemned those efforts, but they’ve been unable to stop them. Even though Democrats control both chambers of Congress in Washington, they can’t pass a sweeping voting rights bill because they don’t have enough votes to get rid of the filibuster, an arcane senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation. A showdown over the filibuster has loomed over the first 100 days of the Biden administration, but during the next 100 days, it’s clear that a showdown over getting rid of the procedure is unavoidable.

Amanda Litman, the executive director of the Run for Something, a group that recruits candidates for state legislative races, told me this week she thinks some Democrats still don’t fully appreciate how dangerous and consequential the GOP’s ongoing efforts are. “This is really an existential crisis. It’s a five-alarm fire. But I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in for members of the United States Senate or the Democratic party writ large,” she told me.

“If the Senate does not kill the filibuster and pass voting rights reforms … Democrats are going to lose control of the House and likely the Senate forever. You don’t put these worms back into a can. You can’t undo this quite easily,” she added.

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, last week set August as a deadline for Democrats to pass their sweeping voting rights bill, which would require early voting, automatic and same-day registration, among other measures. . . . 

But the window for Democrats to have the most impact with their legislation is rapidly closing. The decennial process of redrawing district lines is set to take place later this year, and a critical portion of the Democratic bill would set new limits to prevent state lawmakers, who have the power to draw the maps, from severely manipulating districts for partisan gain. While it’s probably already too late to set up independent redistricting commissions for this year, Democrats could still pass rules to prevent the most severe partisan manipulation.

“You could pass new criteria, including a ban on partisan gerrymandering…require greater transparency in the process,” Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me. “There’s a lot that could be done.”

I also asked the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who chairs the Senate committee currently considering the bill, what kind of message it would send if Democrats failed to take any action to protect voting rights while they held the reins of government. “Failure is not an option,” she said, adding she wasn’t going to let the filibuster stand in the way.

“This is our very democracy that’s at stake,” she said. “I’m not gonna let some old senate rule get in the way of that.”

The prime example of a purported Democrat who doesn’t recognize the crisis is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. From Vox’s profile of Manchin:

Some filibuster reformers hope that, as the year goes on, the reality of Republican obstruction will become clear to Manchin and he’ll be driven to change his mind — that Senate rules will in the end be just as negotiable to him as the details of Biden’s stimulus bill. For instance, reformers hoped a GOP filibuster of Democrats’ big voting rights bill, the For the People Act, could spur holdout senators to change the rules to pass it, because it’s so important.

Manchin recoils at the very idea. “How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?” he asked. He says that 20 to 25 percent of the public already doesn’t trust the system and that a party-line overhaul would “guarantee” that number would increase, leading to more “anarchy” like that at the Capitol on January 6. He added: “I just believe with all my heart and soul that’s what would happen, and I’m not going to be part of it.”

Unquote.

What Manchin is saying is that the millions of Republicans who have bought the Big Lie — that the 2020 election was stolen from the leader of their cult — are so angry that interfering with Republican efforts to make voting as hard as possible would make the crazier ones even crazier. For that reason, he’s willing to let Republican politicians in the Senate and across the country do whatever they want to get Republicans elected, by, for instance, insuring that fewer poor people, Black people, Spanish speakers and college students vote, and when they do vote, their votes don’t matter, because Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to, yes, get Republicans elected.

It’s positions like these that get Manchin referred to as a “moderate” Democrat.

A Possible Way to Address the Filibuster Mess

After four years of political hell, Democrats have a chance to actually move this country forward. In order to do that, Senate Democrats have to either abolish the filibuster or seriously reform it.

Today, ending debate in the Senate requires a “cloture” vote. That means sixty senators have to vote Yes on cloture before the Senate can stop debating and actually vote on legislation. A filibuster is the refusal of forty-one or more senators to vote Yes on cloture. That means the debate proceeds or the Senate gives up and moves on to something else.

But as Senator Warren said last night, senators aren’t sent to Washington to conduct a debate society. If Senate Democrats can’t all agree to totally get rid of the filibuster and allow a simple majority of senators to end debate, they can seriously reform it.

E. J. Dionne shows how it might be done:

Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats in January’s runoffs, giving them control of both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade. But their ability to advance legislation — from raising the federal minimum wage to democracy reforms in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — can be thwarted by the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority filibuster rule.

Progressives’ anger at Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his caucus, who use the filibuster to block every initiative they can, is nearly matched by their frustration with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), whose opposition to getting rid of the filibuster means Democrats are stuck with it, since they’d need all 50 votes in their caucus, plus Vice President Harris as a tiebreaker, to do it. . . .

Manchin hasn’t budged, though. Monday, when asked if he’d reconsider his stance on eliminating the filibuster, he shot back: “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?”

Democrats are right to see the urgency: Republican state lawmakers around the country are moving to enact voter suppression measures that will, if passed, put the slender Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives in jeopardy in 2022 and beyond. Without democracy reform, and with the Supreme Court’s recent assaults on the Voting Rights Act, sticking with the filibuster could make it nearly impossible for the Biden administration to pursue its agenda.

But Democrats should proceed with caution: In 2001, I warned that if Republicans harangued Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) over his apostasy on their party’s policy priorities, they would regret it. He would switch parties and, in a 50-50 Senate, shift the Senate majority. The next month, it happened. The same concern now applies to Democrats with Manchin. Push too far, and the result could be Majority Leader McConnell, foreclosing Democrats’ avenue to pursue infrastructure, tax reform and health reform legislation.

So, what can Democrats do?

. . . Instead of naming and shaming them, Democrats might consider looking at what Manchin and Sinema like about the filibuster. Sinema recently said, “Retaining the legislative filibuster is not meant to impede the things we want to get done. Rather, it’s meant to protect what the Senate was designed to be. I believe the Senate has a responsibility to put politics aside and fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans.” Last year, Manchin said, “The minority should have input — that’s the whole purpose for the Senate. If you basically do away with the filibuster altogether for legislation, you won’t have the Senate. You’re a glorified House. And I will not do that.”

If you take their views at face value, the goal is to preserve some rights for the Senate minority, with the aim of fostering compromise. The key, then, is to find ways not to eliminate the filibuster on legislation but to reform it to fit that vision. Here are some options:

MAKE THE MINORITY DO THE WORK

Currently, it takes 60 senators to reach cloture — to end debate and move to a vote on final passage of a bill. The burden is on the majority, a consequence of filibuster reform in 1975, which moved the standard from two-thirds of senators present and voting to three-fifths of the entire Senate. Before that change, if the Senate went around-the-clock, filibustering senators would have to be present in force.

If, for example, only 75 senators showed up for a cloture vote, 50 of them could invoke cloture and move to a final vote. After the reform, only a few senators in the minority needed to be present to a request for unanimous consent and to keep the majority from closing debate by forcing a quorum call. The around-the-clock approach riveted the public, putting a genuine spotlight on the issues. Without it, the minority’s delaying tactics go largely unnoticed, with little or no penalty for obstruction, and no requirement actually to debate the issue.

One way to restore the filibuster’s original intent would be requiring at least two-thirds of the full Senate, or 40 senators, to keep debating instead requiring 60 to end debate. The burden would fall to the minority, who’d have to be prepared for several votes, potentially over several days and nights, including weekends and all-night sessions, and if only once they couldn’t muster 40 — the equivalent of cloture — debate would end, making way for a vote on final passage of the bill in question.

GO BACK TO THE “PRESENT AND VOTING” STANDARD

A shift to three-fifths of the Senate “present and voting” would similarly require the minority to keep most of its members around the Senate when in session. If, for example, the issue in question were voting rights, a Senate deliberating on the floor, 24 hours a day for several days, would put a sharp spotlight on the issue, forcing Republicans to publicly justify opposition to legislation aimed at protecting the voting rights of minorities. Weekend Senate sessions would cause Republicans up for reelection in 2022 to remain in Washington instead of freeing them to go home to campaign.

In a three-fifths present and voting scenario, if only 80 senators showed up, only 48 votes would be needed to get to cloture. Add to that a requirement that at all times, a member of the minority party would have to be on the floor, actually debating, and the burden would be even greater, while delivering what Manchin and Sinema say they want — more debate. . . .

In a 50-50 Senate, and with the Republican strategy clearly being united opposition to almost all Democratic priorities, Biden and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) need the support of Manchin and Sinema on a daily basis. They won’t be persuaded by pressure campaigns from progressive groups or from members of Congress. But they might consider reforms that weaken the power of filibusters and give Democrats more leverage to enact their policies, without pursuing the dead end of abolishing the rule altogether.

Senator Warren Briefly Reminds Us the Constitution Doesn’t Include a Veto for Mitch McConnell

President Biden and congressional Democrats are necessarily focused on getting the Covid relief bill (the American Rescue Plan) passed in the next two weeks. They also need to get the rest of Biden’s team in place. But after that, how long will they allow a soulless senator from Kentucky the ability to veto so much other vital legislation?

The Sharp Divide in American Politics

I used to view American politics as mainly a struggle between capital (big business and the rich) and labor (the rest of us). That conflict still exists, but I think it’s more helpful today to see our politics as a fight about democracy.

Their side wants fewer people to vote. Our side want more people to vote. 

From Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:

Amid the stream of delusion, depravity, malevolence and megalomania that characterized D____ T____’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, one message should be regarded as arguably more important than all the others combined.

It’s this: The former president told his audience that the Republican Party’s success in coming years depends, in no small part, on its commitment to being an anti-democracy party.

T____ didn’t say this in precisely those words, of course. But that message blared through all the background noise like a loud, clanging alarm bell.

This will require Democrats to redouble their focus on passing their big package of pro-democracy reforms as soon as possible — and to be prepared to nix the legislative filibuster to get it into law. It may be tempting to dismiss or ignore T____’s deranged rantings, but Democrats should see this one message as an actionable one.

As expected, T____’s CPAC speech doubled down on the big lie that the election was stolen from him — and then some. . . .

But embedded in that big lie was an unintentional truth. It was revealed when T____ uncorked an extended riff suggesting that [his party’s] future prospects depend on what he called “election reforms.”

“Another one of the most urgent issues facing the Republican Party is that of ensuring fair, honest, and secure elections,” T____ declared. “We must pass comprehensive election reforms, and we must do it now.”

By “election reforms,” T____ actually meant a redoubled commitment to making it harder to vote. We know this, because he said so: He went on to declare that Democrats had used the “China virus” as an “excuse” to make vote-by-mail easier.

“We can never let that happen again,” T____ said. “We need election integrity and election reform immediately. Republicans should be the party of honest elections.”

This is absurd (Republican legislatures also facilitated vote-by-mail) and full of lies (the election’s legitimacy was upheld in dozens of courts). But that doesn’t change its underlying meaning, which is unambiguous: T____ lost because voting wasn’t hard enough; Republicans must push as forcefully as possible in the opposite direction; this is “urgent.”

The rub of the matter is that all across the country, Republicans are acting on exactly this reading of the situation. [These actions] include sharp cuts to early voting; restricting vote-by-mail in numerous ways; and in the most extreme cases, proposals to allow state legislatures to appoint presidential electors in defiance of the state’s popular vote.

Meanwhile, in numerous states, Republicans are gearing up to use this year’s decennial redrawing of electoral maps to entrench extreme gerrymanders. They have openly declared that this will help them win back the House in 2022 . . . .

Crucially, these efforts are increasingly animated by the same lie about the election’s illegitimacy that T____ told at CPAC. [It’s] their excuse to continue entrenching anti-democratic and anti-majoritarian advantages wherever possible.

This simply requires Democrats to pass the For the People Act in the Senate and House. It includes numerous provisions that would make voting and registration easier; curb restrictions on voting and vote-by-mail; mandate nonpartisan redistricting commissions; and restore voting rights protections gutted by the Supreme Court.

Democrats [must also] be prepared to end the legislative filibuster when Republicans block the package in the Senate. Yes, Democrats face major obstacles to this in the form of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

But a case must be made to those holdouts that Democrats cannot allow Republicans to grind their agenda to a screeching halt — in the face of multiple short and long term crises facing the country — through the exercise of minority rule, facilitated by what has become yet another cynically-wielded tool of counter-majoritarian obstructionism.

“The Big Lie about 2020 is built on an ugly truth: T____ and the Republican Party have turned their backs on our constitutional vision of government of, by, and for the people,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told me in an emailed statement.

“You heard it from T____ himself,” Merkley continued. “We’ve got to get the For the People Act signed into law ASAP so the next elections are decided by the will of the voters, not rigged by corrupt politicians.”

Democrats keep telling us that the prospects for civic renewal in the wake of T____ism’s continued degradations — and the [right’s] ongoing slide into authoritarianism — depend on making government and democracy more functional and responsive. If they really believe this, that imposes obligations on them to do just that. . . .

Taking this idea seriously requires acting where possible to prevent the [Republicans’] increasing radicalization from further wrecking our democratic system. We know exactly what this will look like. T____ just told us so himself.

Unquote.

It might not be possible to get all fifty Democratic senators to agree to abolish the filibuster. But there are other options. This is part of a January article from The Hill called “Senate Democrats Leery of Nixing Filibuster”:

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said that he supported going back to the talking filibuster — a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style change that would let senators block a bill or nominee for as long as they could stay on the floor discussing it . . .

One idea floated by Democrats is trying to get an agreement to enact smaller rules changes that would leave the 60-vote legislative filibuster intact when it comes to ending debate on legislation, but make it easier to move bills on the Senate floor.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who is supportive of filibuster reforms, [said] that outright nixing the 60-vote legislative filibuster was not going to happen in a 50-50 Senate, given opposition from some of his Democratic colleagues: “Let’s figure out ways [to reform Senate rules so] that the minority doesn’t control the place every single day”.

What the Majority Wants vs. the Minority Rule Party

The American Rescue Plan the House of Representatives passed early Saturday morning has so much in it that one amazing provision is hardly being mentioned:

President Biden and Democratic lawmakers want to fight child poverty by giving U.S. families a few hundred dollars every month for every child in their household — no strings attached. A kind of child allowance. . . . Experts say it could cut child poverty nearly in half (NPR).

It’s understandable, therefore, that polls say an overwhelming majority of Americans support the Democrats’ Covid relief bill. One poll says 76% — even 60% of Republicans — support it. But not a single Republican in the House of Representatives voted for it. 

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Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent of The Washington Post both have columns about the bill and the politics. Here’s a mixture from what they wrote:

If I asked you to explain the Republican case against the Covid relief bill, what would you say? Well, they think it’s too expensive, and they’d rather not give too much help to states and localities. But their arguments against it seem halfhearted, anemic, almost resigned. . . .

This ought to be a moment when the GOP is back in its comfort zone. It’s not a party built for governing; Republicans no longer have much of a policy agenda, their leaders have become much more skilled at obstruction than at passing laws, and they have an enormous propaganda machine with a talent for creating fear and outrage. The party’s specialty is opposition.

One of the things they’ve done in the past is cast every new Democratic or liberal move as a harbinger of an impending apocalypse. Obamacare, they said in 2010, would destroy the American health care system. If gay people are allowed to marry, they said in 2004, the result would be the end of families and the breakdown of society. Both predictions proved ludicrously wrong, but at the time, they were highly effective means of motivating opposition. Today you can still find such rhetoric, but you have to look for it. . . .

Back in 2009, [Republican congressman Paul Ryan] made a very public case against a stimulus a fraction this big, making an actual argument (if a fraudulent one) about what debt Armageddon would mean for American society.

These days it’s harder to make that case. Republicans blew up the deficit with a huge tax cut for the rich, and cheered along as the pre-Covid economy was rocket-fueled with stimulus. Economists no longer fear the long-term risks of massive deficit spending amid big crises.

As a result, there’s nothing close to the same kind of public argument this time. As Paul Krugman points out:

Republicans appear to be losing the economic argument in part because they aren’t even bothering to show up

It’s as if they know they don’t have to.

They may well fully expect Democrats to . . . get the economy booming again, even as the vaccine rollout and other policies successfully tame the pandemic.

Yet Republicans know that even if this happens, they still have a good chance at recapturing the House at a minimum, helped along by a combination of voter suppression and other counter-majoritarian tactics and built-in advantages.

[Outside of Washington] they’re racing forward with an extraordinary array of new voter suppression efforts. Such measures are advancing in Georgia, Florida and Iowa, and in many other states.

In a good roundup of all these new efforts, Ari Berman notes:

After record turnout in 2020, Republican-controlled states appear to be in a race to the bottom to see who can pass the most egregious new barriers to voting.

On top of that, Republicans are openly boasting that their ability to take back the House next year will gain a big lift from extreme gerrymanders. Some experts believe they can do that even if Democrats win the national House popular vote by a margin similar to that of 2020.

So is there any reason to doubt that they’re primarily counting on more of the same as their path back to power this time?

[But controlling the White House and both houses of Congress] presents an extraordinary opportunity for Biden and congressional Democrats if they can see their way clear to take advantage of it.

Right now, Democrats are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to increase the minimum wage, something President Biden ran on, their entire party believes in, and which is overwhelmingly popular with the public. Some want $15 an hour, while others would prefer $11.

Yet the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a straight minimum wage increase can’t pass via the reconciliation process — the only way to pass a bill with a simple majority vote — the details of which are incomprehensible, or endlessly maddening, or both.

So Democrats have to find some kind of fiscal somersault to try to get the minimum wage increase into the Covid relief bill. 

This is no way to make laws. And what’s even worse is that it’s happening at a moment when Republicans — who in the past have been nothing if not skilled at undermining, vilifying, and sabotaging Democratic presidents — have seldom looked more feckless.

Republicans just haven’t been able to take the hatred and fear their hardcore base feels for Biden and scale it up and out, which then affects their ability to whip up frenzied opposition to the things he’s trying to do. And the broader context matters, too: When we’re caught in a pandemic and an economic crisis, only so many people will get worked up about whether a transgender girl is allowed to play softball.

That gives Democrats the chance to move forward confidently with their agenda, an agenda that is enormously popular. Yet some in the party are still in the grip of the nonsensical belief that it’s more important to retain a Senate procedure whose purpose is to thwart progress than to pass laws that solve problems.

In every American state legislature and in most every legislature around the world, if there’s majority support for a bill, it passes. In almost all cases supermajorities are only required, if ever, on things like constitutional amendments.

And every argument the filibuster’s defenders make about it — that it produces deliberative debate, that it encourages bipartisanship, that it makes for cooperation and compromise — is simply wrong, as anyone who has been awake for the last couple of decades knows perfectly well.

The Covid relief bill will pass, because it’s the only thing Democrats can do without a supermajority. It’s a vital, popular bill that could have been done in cooperation with Republicans had they wanted, but instead they’ve decided to oppose it. Which is their right, but it also shows how a simple majority should be the requirement for more legislating — which can only happen if the filibuster is eliminated.

The first weeks of the Biden presidency show the path Democrats can take: Push forward with the popular and consequential parts of your agenda, don’t be distracted by bleating from Republicans, act as though the public is behind you (because it is), and you might find that the Republican opposition machine isn’t as potent as it used to be.

But none of that will be possible unless Democrats can deliver on their promises. If they let themselves be handcuffed by the filibuster, the Biden presidency will fail and Republicans will take control of Congress. In other words, Democrats will have done the job Republicans couldn’t do themselves.

Unquote.

Neither of the columnists mentioned two key parts of the Democratic agenda.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It would protect voters from racial discrimination and voter suppression.

The For the People Act would expand voting rights, overhaul our campaign finance system, and end extreme partisan gerrymandering.

All that stands in the way of these bills becoming law is the current requirement that ten Republican senators vote for them. That’s why the 50 Democratic senators need to end or severely limit the filibuster, thereby restoring majority rule to the US Senate. That’s how we can help restore majority rule to the United States of America.