Glacially and fitfully, the filibuster debate is continuing to move in the right direction. In an interview that aired Tuesday night, President Joe Biden said for the very first time that he’d be open to reforming it, echoing recent comments by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who’s been one of the filibuster’s strongest defenders. “I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “You have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days. You had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking.”
This is precisely the change that Manchin has said he could potentially accept. In fact, it seems to be just about the only change to which Manchin is open. Quizzed Wednesday by reporters on ideas like lowering the Senate’s cloture threshold from 60 votes, or exempting certain bills from filibusters, Manchin rejected all the alternatives. He’s for a 60-vote threshold and a talking filibuster and nothing less. If that holds, Senate Republicans have little to fear from the reform drive—a united caucus can collaborate to sustain even a talking filibuster indefinitely.
That said, the fact that political realities have brought Manchin and Biden to this point suggests that they could be pulled even further if Biden’s agenda starts getting gummed up. And that prospect has spooked moderate Republicans in the Senate enough that they’ve joined yet another probably doomed effort to prove that bipartisanship on major legislation is still possible—not a gang of six, eight, or even 14, but a grand Group of 20, which includes enough Republicans to garner 60 votes on a bill. “The so-called G-20 hopes to develop bipartisan approaches to issues like the minimum wage, immigration and infrastructure, in the process providing a compelling argument against axing the filibuster,” Politico reported Thursday. “If it can produce results.”
This is the “good cop” half of the right’s strategy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of course, is the “bad cop.” In his latest speech warning Democrats on Tuesday, he reiterated his promise to bring the Senate to a complete halt if they go nuclear and offered a vision of what Republicans might accomplish without the filibuster should they regain Congress and the presidency. “We’d strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side,” he said. “Nationwide right-to-work for working Americans. Defunding Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities on day one. A whole new era of domestic energy production. Sweeping new protections for conscience and the right to life of the unborn.”
Read a certain way, McConnell’s remarks amount to a remarkable and consequential admission: Kill the filibuster, he claims, and Republicans will pass policies they regularly promise to their voters but that they evidently have no real plans to pass if the filibuster stays. To the extent the right has a federal legislative agenda, it’s largely a hallucinatory one. And McConnell’s ambivalence about making it real is sensible. The policies he’s outlined are largely redundant to the policy status quo conservatives and moderates have shaped over the last 40 years—can you imagine what it would be like if it were difficult to unionize?—and highly unpopular. This is why Republicans have narrowed their focus to courts, cuts, and culture—filling posts voters haven’t heard of with conservative justices, slashing tax rates, and spending the rest of their time babbling about how Democrats want to cancel Hop on Pop. It remains dubious as a strategy for winning over the broad electorate, but we’re confronting the filibuster in the first place because Republicans’ power in the American political system doesn’t depend on them doing so.
But their calculus might change a good bit if the filibuster really goes away. The basic strategic assumption undergirding federal politics in this country is that the Democratic Party is incapable of fully utilizing the power it wins. If it could, losing elections would be significantly more costly in policy terms for the right, and the elections themselves might be harder to win, progressives hope, if Democrats manage to pass democratic reforms.
So, naturally, conservatives are getting a little anxious about where things are headed. On Wednesday, National Review’s Jason Richwine laid the right’s cards down and stated the obvious: Democrats have no strategic reason to keep the filibuster and might really do away with it unless Republicans present a more convincing parade of horribles. “Potential legislation must seem long-lasting and transformative if it is to function as a genuine threat, but here Democrats have the advantage,” Richwine wrote. “They have policy options that fit the ‘long-lasting and transformative’ criteria, while Republicans have no comparable threats to wield. If the filibuster ends, destruction is not mutually assured.”
For now, it remains uncertain whether the filibuster will be abolished or amended at all. It’s not obvious that reform advocates in the Senate have a strategy beyond gingerly prodding bills like H.R. 1 toward a vote and seeing what happens. Republicans have been quite clear about what would happen if Democrats simply moved to a talking filibuster—“I would talk till I fell over,” Lindsey Graham said Wednesday—so the Senate caucus is going to have to come up with a better plan if it actually wants H.R. 1 and all the rest to pass. That’s a big if, though: The promise of sweeping legislative change has long been a useful mirage for both parties.