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Say Goodbye to Senate Reform

The infrastructure bill prevailed. So will the filibuster.

Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer
Alex Wong/Getty Images

For Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, a week of momentous accomplishments has wrapped up. On Tuesday, the Senate advanced a $1 trillion infrastructure package, 69–30. Wednesday morning, their even more ambitious $3.5 trillion budget also successfully passed in the upper chamber, where the budget reconciliation process is allowed to avoid the supermajority requirement and move forward on a 50–49 vote. 

These big outlays, which will fund a slew of Democratic priorities, now return to the House. There, thin margins and intraparty rivalries will at the very least provide some “will they or won’t they?” melodrama for a time; it’s certainly possible that Democrats will find a way to be their own undoing. Still, there’s every reason to believe that the House will come to agreement on these measures and deliver Biden his big win.

That victory, however, will come at a bit of a political cost, because the other big winner this week was the status quo in the Senate—a governing body that has not exactly covered itself in glory in recent years, most notably in its inability literally even to protect itself.  

The world’s least deliberative body has barreled through this contentious week with all of its dysfunctions intact. The passage of the infrastructure deal may be a crowning achievement for Biden, but it was equally significant for Kyrsten SinemaJoe Manchin, and the unknown number of their Democratic colleagues who place a higher value on the Senate’s apocryphal monoculture and the filibuster’s place in its mythology. 

The Democrats who have contended that the Jim Crow relic was a vital feature of our government can likely feel the momentum behind filibuster reform dulling and the threat of its abolition diminishing. With the passage of the infrastructure bill, Senators Manchin and Sinema have less reason than ever to listen to further carping on the matter from their nettlesome critics. After all, that 69–30 vote proves that Washington still works, in the very bipartisan fashion that Biden promised to restore.

As Talking Points Memo’s Kate Riga noted, “With the filibuster intact … there is virtually no chance that Democrats will get another opportunity to pass anything large and meaningful before the 2022 midterms.” The party holding the White House tends to fare poorly in midterm elections, so unless Democrats buck that trend, the chances of meaningful legislation grow even less likely after that.

There is much more to do, and it’s not likely to get done. The outlook for future Democratic legislative majorities, and future Democratic presidencies, is dim because Senate Democrats would need to let the filibuster die in order to advance any vital voter protections against a GOP fully committed to suppression. As it stands, the Democrats would need 10 Republican votes to advance a voting rights bill, meaning any such bill is dead on arrival. Too many Democrats feel that the rules of their private club are more worth preserving than democracy.

The Senate’s bipartisan victory this week may mean trouble for another vital cause: the future of our planet. As Politico reported, during the budget reconciliation’s “vote-a-rama” period—in which senators submit dozens of amendments for rapid-fire consideration—Senate Republicans were consistently able to peel Democrats off to vote for all manner of matters that will hasten climate change, the very same week that the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change moved up the timetable for doomsday.

Not long ago, it was possible to imagine the end of the filibuster. As Osita Nwanevu noted, as recently as March of this year, key Democrats were kicking around the idea of getting rid of it, and conservatives were worried that it could finally happen. But time has made fools of us all. The filibuster has never been in a stronger position than it is after this week. 

Will the infrastructure deal and new budget be enough to keep Democrats in power? They will have to be. It’s likely that these will be the last progressive legislative accomplishments for a good long while. The next time you see the Senate awash in bipartisanship, it could be Democratic senators lending their votes in support of the policies of an illiberal Republican Party. But I’m sure Democratic Party elites know what they’re doing.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.