There’s a Path to Ending the Filibuster, If Democrats Move Wisely

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

There is a whole lot of happy noise coming out of the Biden administration lately, the sum and substance being that this White House — which has “already been transformative,” according to Axios — is looking to rassle the historic New Deal and Great Society policy initiatives for their places in the history books.

“President Biden recently held an undisclosed East Room session with historians that included discussion of how big is too big — and how fast is too fast — to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America,” reads one Axios report this week. “The historians’ views were very much in sync with his own: It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected. If that means chucking the filibuster and bipartisanship, so be it.”

A second Axios report was even bubblier: “Hosting historians around a long table in the East Room earlier this month, President Biden took notes in a black book as they discussed some of his most admired predecessors. Then he said to Doris Kearns Goodwin: ‘I’m no FDR, but…’ He’d like to be.”

This is, of course, a balm to the ears of progressives who have watched the last 50 years of right-bent trickle-down economic plunder shred the country. However, it bears remembering that the five decades of damage we’re facing down has come at the hands of giddily complicit Democrats nearly as often as it has the Republicans.

Two distinct parties became, in a sense, one big corporate party after the old Democratic coalition collapsed, a “centrist” party if you mark the political center somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon. One party favored abortion rights, the other detested them, but when it came to worshiping at the church of supply-side neoliberal economics — “feed the rich” — the two shared a pew and dipped greedily into the same corporate-fattened donation basket.

One of the avatars of that center-right Democratic transformation is none other than President Biden. During his time as a senator, Mr. Biden championed draconian crime bills, drafted ruinous banking bills, and voted to allow catastrophic Republican follies like the invasion and occupation of Iraq. As recently as last September, Mr. Biden was unable to keep his story straight about that war vote, and spent a good deal of his presidential campaign backpedaling vigorously away from much of his record.

These are not “attacks” on Mr. Biden. They are a recitation of black-letter history. It is, therefore, no surprise to see furrowed brows decorating the progressive landscape when the senator from MBNA talks as though he has suddenly been transformed into some Roosevelt-Johnson superbeing. Once bitten, twice shy? We’ve been bitten more often than the curator of an Arizona rattlesnake farm. Forgive us for being bluntly dubious in the face of such shiny talk.

And yet, the possibilities are enormous, aren’t they? Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce took a hard look one year ago not only at who Biden is, but who he could someday become:

[Biden] has been a loyal party man. This led him, as it did all loyal party folk, into some rather skeevy alliances with some more-than-skeevy people, and it has led him to adopt positions that have come back to bite him as a revived progressive wing asserted itself. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, and Biden knows that as well as anybody.

The main question going forward, especially for those progressive voters who are not necessarily Bernie-or-Bust people, is how sincere do you believe Joe Biden is in his newfound adoption of positions that would have been unthinkable 20 years—or 20 months—before. If he thinks that’s where the party’s headed, he will go along. His history proves that he will, and that he likely will do it with gusto. (Emphasis added)

“With gusto.” Even for a crusty old campaigner like me, that line pops a few goosebumps. So OK, let’s say for the sake of argument that Biden means every word, that he intends to take his slim majority in Congress and knock some shit down with it. Nothing would be more welcome, but the second question remains: How?

At some point, the filibuster has to go, even in the face of Mitch McConnell’s puny bluster. As it stands, a number of “centrist” Democrats and every single Republican are against this action, though the reticence of those Democrats has begun to waver in the face of the fact that the GOP intends to filibuster everything including the sink in the men’s room in order to thwart Biden’s agenda.

Just two weeks ago, Biden himself sounded a lot like Joe Manchin when it came to filibuster reform. But if Axios has the right of it, the president has changed his tune dramatically. Angus King of Maine, an Independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats, has likewise moved to the filibuster-abolition camp. More pointedly, he believes those senators who are hesitant to make this change will come around after watching serial GOP obstructionism upend vital legislation like H.R.1, the vast and historic voter protections bill that just passed the House on a straight party vote.

Even stubborn Joe Manchin may have his price regarding the filibuster, and more importantly, he may have already signaled what that price is.

“Sen. Joe Manchin said Wednesday that he favors a large infrastructure package that would be paid for in part by raising tax revenues,” reports NBC News, “a point of contention between the two parties. ‘I’m sure of one thing: It’s going to be enormous,’ the West Virginia Democrat, who is seen as a swing vote in a chamber divided 50-50, told reporters at the Capitol.”

Is there room here for a deal? If Biden promises to go full bore on Manchin’s massive infrastructure bill in exchange for Manchin and his cohort of “centrists” agreeing to vote an end to the filibuster, it could be hats over the windmill.

Clearly, we are not there yet… but I have a vision in my mind’s eye that won’t go away. In my vision, the filibuster remains intact for the senate vote on H.R.1, and the bill gets filibustered to death by McConnell or one of his underlings. Thus, the gauntlet is thrown.

Senate Democrats then feed other enormously popular bills — gun background checks, say, or infrastructure — into the maw of the GOP filibuster. Blow by blow, bill by bill, it will become clear even to the stoniest “centrist” Democrat that their own political aspirations will rise or fall on the ability, simply, to get things done.

And then, as tensions peak, a House and Senate coalition, led by the Congressional Black Caucus and fully supported by Mr. Biden, once again puts H.R.1 up for a vote. Their main argument? The hundreds of bills emerging nationwide that seek to obliterate the right to vote for people of color, and for anyone else who does not reliably vote Republican. All eyes turn, again, to the filibuster.

… and after all that? None can say. The way is there, however, eight lanes wide and screaming for boldness.

Who are you, Joe Biden? Are you going to be a president who prioritizes real human needs? If you are, we need you to fight now. Win first, improve people’s lives by way of desperately needed progressive legislation, and wait for the lightbulb moments to start flashing all over the country.