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Democrats Can Preach “Unity” and Still Kill the Filibuster

Why Joe Biden’s position on the issue doesn’t really matter

MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

“His position has not changed,” White House press secretary Jenn Psaki said Friday when asked whether the president thought the Senate should stop requiring supermajorities to pass most legislation—a practice commonly but mostly inaccurately referred to as the filibuster.

Most reporters took Psaki’s comments to mean Joe Biden still supports leaving the 60-vote threshold in place, giving the minority party veto power over most legislative business. But Biden has suggested some openness to eliminating the rule—if only after waiting for Republicans to prove how “obstreperous” they will be during his first term.

Politico’s Alex Thompson reports that while Biden has resisted the idea of altering the rule, “allies say that doesn’t mean he’s ruled it out.”

“We are in a dire crisis, and he isn’t going to sit by for four years and see his entire agenda stymied,” said one of those allies, Delaware Senator Chris Coons.

Of course, it doesn’t actually matter what the president thinks of Senate rules, because the president has no authority over them.

At least, that is the constitutional and legal situation. The political reality is that the president’s position matters a great deal to his fellow Democrats in Congress, because the modern norm is for the president to lead his party’s congressional faction, determining the agenda and setting priorities.

But, again, that’s not how our actual political system was designed to work. The Senate rules are whatever the Senate wishes them to be; in design, if not practice, the vice president is supposed to have more influence over the body than the president. And Kamala Harris has signaled some willingness to get rid of the 60-vote threshold. (She had previously expressed some attachment to the rule, but by the time of her own presidential campaign, she said, “I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal.”)

That presents an opportunity: Declaring independence from the president and altering the rules of the Senate against his ostensible wishes is probably the only way to make his pitch for “unity” work at all.

As I’ve previously written, Joe Biden’s decision to premise his entire campaign—and then his inaugural speech—on “unity” may have been good politics, but it created an obvious problem for his administration (and Democrats everywhere) right off the bat. Republicans can simply decide not to cooperate and then say that Biden has broken his promise to unite the nation.

Biden has said that his election would help break the fever of Republican extremism, and that once he took office, conservatives would negotiate with Democrats in good faith, hashing out bipartisan compromises to move the country forward. I (and plenty of others) have argued that this was an irresponsible promise. But in Alex Thompson’s Politico story, an unnamed Biden aide reiterates the belief—which Jenn O’Malley Dillon also expressed, in the interview in which she called Republicans “fuckers”—that that promise was already vindicated, despite the scoffing of critics like me.

Meanwhile, Biden’s allies are loudly insisting that finding common ground is possible and exactly what the American people want after the past decade of partisan warfare. The Biden team is aware that many in their own party are rolling their eyes but argue that it’s just the latest instance of the Democratic establishment underestimating Joe Biden.

“People said it was naive, you know, 18, 19 months ago as he was running, he was criticized for it. But you know what? It’s one of the reasons he won,” said a senior Biden White House adviser.

To clarify the position of the eye-rollers, their argument was not that promising the end of partisan warfare was naïve because it wouldn’t work on voters. They argued that it wouldn’t work on Republicans, after Joe Biden won. It is a bit early to declare vindication on that front.

But declaring vindication before one has been vindicated is actually useful practice for what should come next. Now that he is in the White House, Joe Biden should take a page from other politicians and say he delivered on his promise to have united us, regardless of the facts on the ground, while Democrats go about actually governing.

Take the debate over the filibuster. President Joe Biden could remain ambivalent on ending the filibuster rule and continue to reiterate his belief that Republicans will come to the table and negotiate in good faith. In the Senate, Democrats could just end it and start to pass legislation.

Democrats who doubt that Republicans will ever have some grand bipartisan awakening seem to think that they must wait until Republicans show themselves to be true obstructionists before they can act to end the filibuster rule. As The Atlantic puts it, Democrats will “essentially dare Republicans to stand in their way on politically popular measures.” And: “If Republican senators hold those bills up by filibustering, Democrats would accuse them of standing in the way of helping Americans, or standing in the way of voting rights. Ending the filibuster would then be an easier sell.”

This is not a plan to “sell” the filibuster: It is a plan to avoid doing anything about it.

The fact that Republicans have barely paid a political price for years of obstruction and procedural nihilism suggests the limits of a strategy of waiting for Republicans to prove how much they love obstruction and procedural nihilism.

The strategy, in fact, is less about telling a convincing story to the American people than it is about allowing the Democrats to delay ending the filibuster until they believe they have permission from some amorphous outside force known as “the people.” But they already received that permission when they won the Senate majority.

And more importantly, not only do they not have to “prove” Republican intransigence, they will never be able to do so, because there is no truly neutral and trusted third party, in the media or anywhere else, with the clout to rule, finally and officially, that Republicans have failed the bipartisan test and that the Democrats can now eliminate the filibuster rule. Democrats must decide the matter themselves and act on it.

The good news is, that lack of a neutral and trusted third-party arbiter of Who Is Playing Fair also means that Joe Biden does not need to abandon his promise of unity even if Democrats in the Senate move to disempower the Republican minority. Chuck Schumer can get his hands dirty while President Biden continues praying for the Republican “epiphany.” Instead of trying to get Republicans in trouble for blocking politically popular measures, just do the politically popular measures, and mourn that the other side wouldn’t put aside partisanship to get on board.