Former President Barack Obama has called on the Senate to do away with the filibuster, but that won’t happen if West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has anything to say about it.
“I will do everything I can to prevent it from happening,” Manchin, a Democrat, told Yahoo News in an interview on Wednesday. “We will not have the democracy we know today if that [filibuster elimination] happens, I can assure you.”
Debated in Washington for years, the idea of eliminating the filibuster received renewed attention last week after Obama, during his eulogy for civil rights icon John Lewis, described the procedural rule as “another Jim Crow relic” that should be overturned.
Manchin said he sees the filibuster as an essential feature of the Senate and vital to the institution’s role as a deliberative body where members must work toward compromise. He said he didn’t see Obama’s full eulogy, but when asked about the former president’s contention that the filibuster has been used to quash civil rights legislation, Manchin fired back that it has been used to stop many kinds of legislation.
On Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden signaled his willingness to do away with the filibuster, but cautioned that it “has also saved a lot of bad things from happening too.”
For Manchin, however, keeping the filibuster in place will ensure stability no matter which party prevails in the November elections.
“My view on the filibuster has been my view from day one,” Manchin said. “We should be able to talk to each other, we should be able to sit down and work through our differences and we should find a compromise. … We’re not going to run this country from the extremes, and if you do away with the filibuster as we know it and basically the 60-vote rule, then you’re going to have the Senate no different from the House — it can go to the fringes to the right or the left.”
He added that he wonders why Senate leadership is “just hellbent on dividing the country to where it’s my side or your side, not our side.”
With the Senate expected to be nearly evenly divided after November, the views of moderates like Manchin, Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., will weigh heavily in determining whether the filibuster remains in place.
A procedural rule that allows a minority of senators to block a bill from being voted on, the filibuster is not mentioned in the Constitution. It dates to the early 1800s, when Vice President Aaron Burr advised fellow senators to discard a rule known as the previous question motion. Once that rule was removed, senators were able to filibuster because the Senate no longer had a rule allowing a simple majority to stop debate and proceed to a vote on pending legislation. The first filibuster in the Senate occurred in 1837. In the 1950s and ’60s, Southern senators wielded the filibuster to block various civil rights bills. In recent years it has been used increasingly often by the minority party in the Senate to block legislation it opposes.
Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said Obama’s eulogy was important and will elevate the drive to kill the filibuster because the former president tied it specifically to passing voting rights legislation.
“He was explicitly tying getting rid of the filibuster to a specific policy priority the Democrats might have in 2021,” Reynolds said. “What is the thing that you could get a simple majority of Democrats to decide that they all agreed on and was important enough to eliminate the filibuster for? … President Obama came out and said, ‘Maybe it’s voting rights legislation,’ which starts to move the conversation in a more specific direction.”
Adam Jentleson, who was deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and is the author of a forthcoming history of the Senate, “Kill Switch,” said that even if conservative Democrats say they will block the party from removing the filibuster, they could well change their minds if circumstances suit them.
“Count me skeptical in general of even the most seemingly firm statements of opposition,” he told Yahoo News. “Things change.”
Jentleson said the debate on “going nuclear,” a term used for blowing up the filibuster, has evolved in recent months.
“What’s becoming increasingly clear is that in the polarized country we have, going nuclear isn’t necessary to pass far-left priorities; it’s necessary to pass middle-of-the-road priorities and really for the Senate to function at all,” Jentleson said.
He concurred that the filibuster has been repeatedly used to block civil rights legislation from slavery through the Jim Crow era, casting Obama’s decision to make the proposal while eulogizing a civil rights hero as significant.
“There’s a reason [the filibuster] has been birthed into existence and honed over the years when reactionary white conservatives have found themselves outnumbered and wanting to defy the march of progress and the will of the majority,” Jentleson said. “The net effect today is still to empower a minority of reactionary white conservatives to impose their will on the rest of the country without having to secure a majority of the vote or win the battle of public opinion. And that’s part of why it’s so dangerous in a democracy because the agenda of our government doesn’t reflect the will of a majority. It reflects the will of a minority that’s dramatically out of step with the rest of the country, and that’s not a healthy dynamic.”
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