Good question, and he’s not speaking hypothetically. Various Senate Democrats, from Dick Durbin to Tim Kaine to presidential candidate Cory Booker, have spoken disapprovingly of jettisoning the 60-vote requirement to pass legislation in the upper chamber. (A notable exception is Elizabeth Warren.) The most surprising filibuster fan, though, is Bernie Sanders. How does the guy with the most radically left-wing economic agenda of any presidential hopeful propose to get his state takeover of the health-insurance industry passed with the filibuster intact? Philip Klein wonders:
“No, I’m not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster,” Sanders replied. He went on to say, “the problem is, people often talk about the lack of comity, but the real issue is you have a system in Washington that is dominated by wealthy campaign contributors.”…
Sanders … has been openly fantasizing about a revolution for decades, and yet he’s somehow attached to this procedural requirement?
One wonders if the experience of the Trump presidency, while in one sense has made Democrats feel less beholden to norms, has in the other sense made them reluctant to remove institutional barriers that could be used by a future Republican president. After all, Democrats have seen how former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s nuking of the filibuster for nominations has allowed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to confirm a flood of Trump judges with relative ease, including two Supreme Court justices.
That’s one theory, that Bernie and the Dems are so traumatized from watching the GOP use Reid’s precedent to punch through Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh that they’re reluctant to do any further procedural tinkering. I don’t follow the logic there, though: Nuking the legislative filibuster would be the final bit of tinkering that either party could do with the rule. Why wouldn’t Dems do it in the name of advancing their agenda, knowing that there can’t be a new Republican reprisal in the future similar to the Gorsuch/Kavanaugh comeuppance?
Another theory is Jon Favreau’s theory below, that some Democrats aren’t as committed to Medicare for all and the Green New Deal as they claim and are hoping that having the filibuster in place might free them from the responsibility of having to follow through on their plans. “Whoops, sorry — can’t do single-payer after all. The damned filibuster won’t allow it.” Does anyone seriously believe that’s Bernie Sanders’s attitude, though? If he gets elected as America’s first outright socialist president, he’s going to follow through. Rarely will a new president have a mandate as clear as President Bernie will have if he wins.
My theory is that he’s just flat-out lying. Why rock the boat any more than he needs to right now by imagining getting rid of the filibuster, especially when there’s at least a (very small) chance that Trump will win in 2020 and Republicans will take back the House? Every bit of rhetoric Democrats devote to nuking the filibuster can and will be used by the Republican base to try to convince McConnell to nuke it in 2021, clearing the way for broad Republican legislative gains in Trump’s second term. (“Bernie would have done it if he’d won! He said so!”) If Sanders wins the presidency and Democrats take back the Senate, he can then duly declare that he’s reconsidered and now supports eliminating the filibuster in the name of advancing The People’s Agenda or whatever. No sense in jumping that gun at a moment when the GOP might benefit from it potentially.
The real drama here isn’t whether Dem 2020 candidates do or don’t secretly want to nuke the filibuster, it’s whether they can find 50 votes to do it if they win a Senate majority next fall. Remember, the majority leader can’t change the rules by whim; he needs a majority of the Senate to ratify a rule change. Democrats will probably need to net at least four seats in 2020 to get to 50, a heavy lift that’s doable but difficult enough that they’re probably unlikely to gain much more than four. Meaning, whether there’s enough support to overturn the filibuster may come down to Joe Manchin. Would Manchin do it? What about some of the more liberal skeptics of ending the filibuster, like Durbin or Kaine or Mark Warner or whoever? It may take two election cycles for Democrats to be in position to go nuclear.
Or not. Trump has given them plenty of political cover to do it once they have the numbers. Why wouldn’t they? It’s farcical to think of them whiffing on passing their pet programs next time just because they can’t get to 60.
“If they want to pass the Green New Deal and Medicare for All but they also want to keep the filibuster in place, they’re not being honest with the voters.” – @jonfavs talks about the filibuster and 2020 Democratic candidates.https://t.co/a8Y7EGlMpL pic.twitter.com/yHPIb4L1V3
— Pod Save America (@PodSaveAmerica) February 21, 2019