That’s one potential filibuster reform that has been under consideration by the Senate Democrats who want to see an end to the Republicans’ refusal to pass anything good. A return to the talking filibuster—which Manchin is now saying he’d think about allowing—would force Republicans to actually work to obstruct legislation. As it stands now, they only have to object to unanimous consent to bring a bill up. That forces the majority leader, now Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, to file a cloture vote, which happens after 30 hours of what is supposed to be debate but which no one ever uses to actually debate. Then to “invoke cloture” to allow a bill to move forward for consideration, Schumer has to have 60 votes. Which Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will never allow him. Witness even Murkowski refusing to support the wildly popular and essential COVID-19 relief bill.
Restoring the talking filibuster would require a member of the minority party to filibuster as long as he or she (yes, Manchin, there are “she”s in the Senate) can stay on the floor talking. Once she or he relents, a simple majority vote can occur. That does one thing Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the other most vocal opponent to abolishing the filibuster among Democrats, say they want: “the involvement of the minority,” in Manchin’s words. This is actually a big change, and one that Sen. Jeff Merkley, the lead Democrat on filibuster reform, has been talking about for years. “There are three basic advantages to the talking filibuster,” he wrote in 2012, explaining his plan to his colleagues. “1) it would require time and energy to filibuster. 2) it would put the filibuster squarely in front of the public. 3) it would allow the public to weigh in with their senators.”
Here’s another possibility for reform, one that didn’t come up in discussion with Manchin: changing the rules for certain kinds of legislation. Rep. Jim Clyburn spoke strongly about this last week with The Guardian after the House passed the election and voting rights reform bill, the For the People Act. “There’s no way under the sun that in 2021 that we are going to allow the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights. That just ain’t gonna happen. That would be catastrophic,” he said. “If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.”
He spoke about the late congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights hero for whom a voting rights restoration bill has been named. “Here we are talking about the Voting Rights Act he worked so hard for and that’s named in his honor and they’re going to filibuster it to death? That ain’t gonna happen,” Clyburn said. “I’m not going to say that you must get rid of the filibuster. I would say you would do well to develop a Manchin-Sinema rule on getting around the filibuster as it relates to race and civil rights,” Clyburn said. As he pointed out, the COVID-19 relief bill moved through Congress using reconciliation rules, which meant it wasn’t subject to the 60 vote margin as other legislation. “You can’t filibuster the budget,” Clyburn said. “That’s why we have reconciliation rules. We need to have civil and voting rights reconciliation. That should have had reconciliation permission a long, long time ago.
“If the headlines were to read that the John R Lewis Voting Rights Act was filibustered to death it would be catastrophic,” he added. He’s absolutely right, of course, but there’s another dimension to that statement coming from that member of Congress. Yes, he’s part of the House leadership team, but more critically, he’s an extremely close ally of President Joe Biden. Arguably, Biden is in the White House now because of Clyburn. Biden’s landslide primary win in South Carolina a year ago last month ended up essentially clinching the nomination for Biden. “You brought me back,” Biden told Clyburn in his victory speech after that primary. So when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says Biden’s “preference is not to make different changes to the rules, to the filibuster rules” for specific legislation like voting rights, take that with a grain of salt.
Because Biden’s “preference” with the COVID-19 relief bill was to have Republicans involved. He had meetings with them, even. That didn’t stop him from pushing this bill and making sure it went through the Senate. That included talking to Manchin directly during the unemployment insurance impasse on Friday to get his support. Whether that phone call had anything to do with Manchin’s new insight on reform the filibuster might never be known, but it doesn’t seem like it’s out of the realm of possibility.
Manchin’s talking like a kingmaker now, having successfully and single-handedly tied the Senate in knots for a day over the COVID-19 relief. He says he won’t allow the next big spending bill on Biden’s agenda—a massive climate and infrastructure plan—to move under budget reconciliation rules. “I’m not going to do it through reconciliation,” he told Axios’ Mike Allen. “I am not going to get on a bill that cuts [Republicans] out completely before we start trying.”
Maybe so, and maybe filibuster reform will have to happen for that bill to pass, too. But Manchin should carefully consider the words of Jim Clyburn. Because that’s who the real kingmaker is here, and Biden knows that very well.