There’s no question that Biden and Schumer are going to end the filibuster next year if they get control of the White House and Senate, respectively. To the extent that Biden’s still entertaining illusions that Senate Republicans might be willing to work with him, he’ll be disabused of it in short order. With Trump gone and the GOP suffering even more of an ideological vacuum than before, the default ideology will be “Block everything.” And they’re unlikely to suffer electorally for it: Democrats learned in 2014 that Republicans are more apt to be rewarded in the midterms by Republican voters for successfully thwarting a left-wing president than they are to be punished by Democratic voters for doing so. That means Biden and Schumer will likely have 24 months to move their agenda, probably with something like a narrow 52/48 Senate majority in a best-case scenario for them in November.
Even if they’re squeamish about nuking the filibuster, the left’s not going to accept a do-nothing Biden presidency in return for holding their noses to vote for him. They want a payoff, and the only way to get that done is to nuke away.
And now here’s the first black president, the most popular man in the party, whose own agenda was bottled up for part of his second term by the filibuster, using the occasion of the funeral of a civil-rights hero to give them his explicit permission to do so. It’s a done deal.
His reference to the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic” is a misnomer in the sense that the tactic didn’t originate as recently as that, but what he means is clear enough in context. Some of the most infamous uses of procedural obstruction in Senate history came during the 20th century in the context of civil rights. In the early 1920s an anti-lynching bill was successfully filibustered and ultimately withdrawn. Strom Thurmond uncorked the longest talking filibuster on record in 1957 when he spoke for slightly more than 24 hours to try to derail civil-rights legislation. In 1964, with the landmark Civil Rights Act headed for passage, southern Democrats launched a sustained debate to try to block the bill that went on for 60 days and included a 14-hour speech from former Klansman turned sainted Democratic statesman Robert Byrd.
Of course, the taint of racism on the filibuster never stopped Sen. Obama from using it for his own political ends, like when he joined a failed filibuster of Justice Alito’s SCOTUS nomination. But in the context of calling for passing a raft of new voting-rights legislation, as he did in today’s eulogy, you can see why reminding the audience of the procedure’s Jim Crow lowlights might be effective:
President Obama just endorsed these ideas:
—Restore Voting Rights Act
—Auto register all Americans to vote
—Voting rights for former inmates
—Add polling places
—Expand early voting
—Make Election Day a holiday
—Equal representation for DC & Puerto Rico
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) July 30, 2020
A fascinating strategic question for Biden and Schumer is which type of legislation they’ll offer first upon assuming power in the expectation that the GOP will filibuster it. Logically they should want to offer a bill which the public supports almost unanimously but which the GOP, due to the preferences of its special interests, is obliged to oppose. I’ve always assumed it’ll be universal background checks, an issue which draws upwards of 90 percent support across the public but which gun-rights advocates disdain. If Dems are going to do something as radical and taboo as nuking the filibuster, they want to be able to plead their case with voters that they simply had no choice as a matter of basic democracy: Virtually the entire electorate wants X, Republicans refuse to support X, therefore fulfilling the people’s will requires bulldozing them. Background checks is the closest thing they have to an issue desired by the entire electorate, so much so that I wonder if, say, 10 Senate Republicans might break ranks and support the bill, averting the nuking.
Nuking the filibuster to pass voting-rights legislation would be an interesting strategic choice too, though. It’s not as universally popular as expanding background checks is, but it’s pretty popular per this Pew poll from 2018:
A smart friend of mine pointed out to me not long ago that Trump does better in some polling among younger African-Americans than his Republican predecessors. His theory of why is that it’s not so much particular to Trump as it is a byproduct of the 60s, 70s, and 80s passing into history, with younger generations less apt to associate Republicans with the “southern strategy” and thus feeling somewhat less obliged to vote Democratic. In that case, Schumer might want to push a voting-rights package early in the hope and expectation that the GOP would filibuster it as part of their “block everything” effort and then have Democrats use that obstruction to try to convince younger minority voters that the “southern strategy” is as dominant now as ever. (Before proceeding to nuke that filibuster, of course.) That might tamp down some of the nascent interest among younger black Americans in exploring their partisan options.
Anyway, here’s Obama in Paul-Wellstone-funeral mode.
Former president Barack Obama calls for eliminating the filibuster if needed to expand voting rights:
"If all of this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do." pic.twitter.com/Ps6hkQ9gFX
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) July 30, 2020