The Senate filibuster, the most handy legislative tool in the American reactionary playbook, is closer to being killed or at least substantially reformed than it has been in nearly a century.
Earlier this month, filibuster expert and Battle Born Collective executive director Adam Jentleson told me that when he was former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s deputy chief of staff, the last time the Democrats had a Senate majority, changing the filibuster beyond weakening it for executive nominations wasn’t even worthy of a conversation. Now, the whole thing rests on a handful of conservative Democratic holdouts—on Wednesday, President Joe Biden went farther than he ever has in endorsing an end to the filibuster as it exists today.
But the holdouts are loud, not least because the most conservative wing of the Democratic Party is much more comfortable with the role of steering the Democratic agenda than the left. These are the spiritual successors to the people who fought tooth and nail to make the Affordable Care Act as shitty and as difficult to navigate as possible. They have had a lot of practice.
The most glaring example of this is the Democrats’ marquee voting rights bill, the For the People Act. The House passed it earlier this month, and it needs all 50 votes in the Senate, because Republicans will never vote for it. Sen. Joe Manchin, the de facto leader of this crew, planted the flag Thursday. In a very long tl;dr statement Thursday, Manchin singled out several parts of the bill he likes but said the whole package needs Republican votes, which, again, it will never get.
“Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government,” Manchin said of the bill.
Manchin also told CNN Thursday that he will not countenance nuking the filibuster over the issue of voting rights when the Republicans inevitably, you know, filibuster it. Asked if his mind would change on this, he replied, “No, it will not, no, no.”
The only way to read this line in the sand is that Manchin is either truly delusional or that he just doesn’t care at all about voting rights. Manchin more than likely views the whole thing as a distraction, considering he’s laser-focused right now on a giant infrastructure package. But still, the idea that Democrats can find some kind of common ground with Republicans on ensuring basic democratic rights is an insidious one, and it’s worth debunking no matter Manchin’s particular reasons.
As the coalitions exist today, more people voting does not always translate to success for Democrats—the mixed results of the last election is proof of that—but the easier access to the ballot comes for working-class and poor people, the harder it is for the GOP to win. This is why the first thing they do after they lose an election is make it harder to vote.
The whole thing is playing out again in Georgia right now. On Thursday, the state legislature rammed through a bill that didn’t just restrict voting, but specifically enabled the partisan rigging of elections and targets tools of coalition-building that eventually resulted in Biden winning the state and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock handing the Democrats a Senate majority in January. The bill, for example, makes it an actual crime to give people food and water while they’re standing in line to vote, and allows the state elections board, whose chair is now elected by the legislature, to take over elections in certain counties. It is plainly obvious what sort of counties that tool will be wielded against.
On Thursday night, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill behind closed doors. Outside his office, Park Cannon, a Black Democratic state legislator from East Atlanta, was forcibly removed and arrested by police. The whole episode reflects the reality that it does not matter how many times you sit down to dinner with these people, or how many shared bonding experiences you have over college basketball. The job for them is not friend-gathering or colleague-respecting—it’s winning power and using it.
To give you an idea of how laughable Manchin’s goal in particular is, look at the Republican side of the “Gang of 20” group of “moderate” senators. On the Republican side you have Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who as Speaker of the North Carolina House in the first four years after the Tea Party wave of 2010 helped usher in a wave of restrictions on the voting rights of Black people, poor people, and young people, including voter ID and some of the worst gerrymandering in the country. This is supposed to be the guy who gives you the 60th vote for voting rights?
Voting rights has always been an ideological issue, if not a partisan one, and the only time it hasn’t been is when everyone mostly agreed that landowning white men should be the only ones able to vote. The whole concept of expanding voting is “divisive” in the basic definition of the word—there are, after all, a lot of reactionaries out there with a desire for political self-preservation.
If the For the People Act somehow passes with anything resembling teeth, the GOP will fight it as forcefully as it did the VRA, which it broke down over the course of five long decades. There’s a reason that Strom Thurmond said the VRA would ““destroy the provisions of the Constitution” and turn America into “a totalitarian state in which there will be despotism and tyranny,” and it’s the same reason Ted Cruz called the For the People Act “the single most dangerous bill this [Rules] committee has ever considered” during a Senate hearing this week: free and fair elections are bad for business. And the sooner Manchin and his ilk are about this, the harder it’ll be to use Senate procedure to weasel out of it.