For the first time in 2021, Senate
Republicans filibustered a bill: a bill to establish a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack
on the United States Capitol
. It was a bipartisan bill to establish a bipartisan commission
, the kind of thing that, in theory, would sail through a Senate that preaches the virtues of bipartisanship
However, the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes
to advance a bill, allowed Republicans to kill the commission on Friday, proving once and for all that the filibuster does not encourage, but rather obstructs, bipartisan compromise.
This should be a watershed moment for Democratic Senators Joe Manchin
(W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema
(Ariz.), who oppose changing the Senate filibuster on the flimsy premise that the filibuster is a necessary tool for fostering bipartisan compromise.
“Bill debate should be a bipartisan process that takes into account the views of all Americans, not just those of one political party,” Sinema said in a February email to constituents.
“There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Manchin wrote in The Washington Post
, “and the time has come to end these political games and usher in a new era of bipartisanship in which we find common ground on the major policy debates confronting our nation.”
Manchin contended that previous changes to filibuster rules enacted by each party exacerbated gridlock. (Despite his claims of consistent opposition to changing filibuster rules, Manchin co-sponsored and voted in favor of a talking filibuster rules change in 2011 that ultimately failed.)
The notion that the filibuster encourages bipartisan compromise, on the other hand, is false, as evidenced by the filibuster of the bipartisan commission on Jan. 6.
The commission bill was written in a bipartisan manner in the House by Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.). The commission would be split evenly between members of both parties, and all actions, including hiring of staff, would require approval by commission members from both parties, similar to the structure of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.
Thirty-five House Republicans
and six Republican senators voted to move forward with commission debate, but none of this matters because the filibuster allows a partisan minority to prevent bipartisan compromise.
Manchin should not have to learn this lesson again, as his bipartisan gun control
bill with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) failed to pass despite the support of 55 senators, including four Republicans. (The vote was technically 54-46, but former Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) voted against as part of a procedural maneuver to allow the bill to be brought up again.)
The notion advanced by Manchin that eliminating the filibuster leads to hyperpartisanship is incorrect. Hyperpartisanship preceded former Senate Democratic Leader Reid's elimination of the filibuster for lower court and executive branch nominees in the form of filibuster abuse in 2013.
The filibuster not only stymies bipartisan compromise, but it also feeds partisanship by allowing lawmakers to signal support for legislation even if they don't want to work
to pass it. This is especially true for partisan bills, which senators can voice support for to appease issue-based voters
while avoiding having to reveal how they would vote on the matter because most bills that can't get a vote are filibustered.
Similarly, the filibuster increases partisanship by reducing the likelihood of minority party lawmakers negotiating concessions in exchange for their vote on behalf of their constituents.
As seen in the infrastructure
negotiations, the credible threat of passing Democrats
' priorities without Republican input via reconciliation, a process that allows some bills to pass with only 50 votes, is encouraging some negotiation and compromise.
The Republican filibuster of the Jan. 6 commission is another example of the filibuster increasing partisanship. Republicans openly state that they oppose the bill because an investigation
into the riot instigated by ex-President Donald Trump
would make Republicans look bad ahead of the 2022 midterm elections
. And a bipartisan investigation approved by members of both parties would be even worse because it would compel both parties to investigate the riot.
Manchin said he was deeply moved by the Capitol attack to find ways to bridge
partisan divides and work with the opposing party to pass legislation, which is why he claims to unequivocally support the current filibuster rules. He and Sinema begged Republicans to support the Jan. 6 commission bill.
The filibuster is the only thing that is preventing the bill from being passed.