Some Democratic Senators Are Still Hesitant to Abolish the Filibuster

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) speaks in support of a judicial nominees during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 4, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Over on Twitter, Avi Woolf noted that Democrats are acting like this is the mid-1930s and they have locked in large majorities, as they pursue changes such as abolishing the filibuster. That isn’t entirely true of Democratic senators as a group. And it isn’t just cagey moderates like Sinema and Manchin. Even a blue-state senator like Diane Feinstein is leery about abolishing the filibuster.

One reason why even some Democratic senators might be reticent to abolish the filibuster is that they face different experiences from liberals in media, tertiary education, and foundation-funded activism. To adapt Matthew Yglesias’s expression, lots of liberals learned to win political arguments by calling the RA, and have applied the principle by calling HR or some other corrupt bureaucracy to silence or punish their opposition.

The experience of these liberals is you can always get the college president, or Jeff Bezos, or Jeffrey Goldberg, or Dean Baquet to fire your opponents or delist their books. The formal rules don’t even matter (if they make you feel “unsafe,” they should be fired, if you make them feel unsafe, they should find somewhere else to work) because the application will be reliably corrupt.

The problem is that the Democratic senators know there isn’t some RA they can call and all the crying to Jeff Bezos in the world won’t stop Mitch McConnell from using any rules he is handed to his greatest advantage. In the Senate, they know that what goes around, comes around.

A second reason is that Senate Democrats who have been around for a while have seen reversals of fortune. They have seen the Emerging Democratic Majority proclaimed after the 2012 election turn into 54 Republican Senate seats after the 2014 election. They’ve seen Donald Trump go from a washed-up, attention-seeking joke to president. That’s much weirder than the Republicans settling upon a policy agenda that can command 51 Senate votes.

A final reason Senate Democrats might be reticent is that they’ve been here before. Under Harry Reid, the Senate Democrats crippled the filibuster for nominations. If that filibuster had been in place, it is extremely unlikely that Brett Kavanaugh gets confirmed. Susan Collins and Joe Manchin had enough trouble voting for him at all — much less having to destroy the filibuster in order to save his nomination. And as liberal activist Ian Millhiser pointed out, one of the effects of killing the nomination filibuster was a much younger and more conservative set of appeals court judges than would have been nominated and confirmed under the old system. Democratic senators might look at their changes to the nomination filibuster and conclude that, so far, the Republicans have come out ahead.

Getting rid of the filibuster might still be a good thing. Even some conservatives might be able to see the upside of a system where parties who win trifectas have one less excuse to act on their promises. Our politicians might become a little less promiscuous in their promises, and we do have too much failure theater.

But abolishing the filibuster, in itself, won’t necessarily push politics altogether to the left (any more than abolishing the nomination filibuster pushed the judiciary to the left.) It will tend to make policy swings somewhat wider and sharper-edged. It might make policy-making more ideological and coherent. Whether that’s a good thing depends on what you think about our ideologues. A few Democratic senators might be looking at the activist base of the GOP (and their own party) and have some doubts.

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