Democrats Don't Have a Filibuster Problem. They Have a Joe Manchin Problem.

The problem isn’t the GOP or Senate rules. It’s that Democrats can’t agree amongst themselves.


When Democrats took control of Congress earlier this year, there was a lot of talk about ending the legislative filibuster. Broadly speaking, the argument was that the filibuster gave a recalcitrant GOP minority the power to block policy changes favored by the majority party. 

Looked at one way, the situation in the 117th Congress was ripe with possibility for the left: Democrats had won 50 seats (including Bernie Sanders, an independent) in the upper chamber, plus a tie-breaking vote from the vice president—a narrow but clear majority. But the Senate procedural rule, in current usage, effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation, which in this case would necessitate finding 10 Republican votes along with a unified Senate Democratic caucus.  

The reconciliation process, which allows for the passage of some legislation with a simple majority, offered some exceptions, but those exceptions were subject to various rules and requirements themselves—notably that reconciliation bills could only consist of provisions germane to the budget, which put certain sorts of social legislation off limits. But Democrats argued that the particulars of this process were tilted toward Republican priorities, like tax reductions, and that the underlying situation was inherently undemocratic. 

If Democrats scrapped the legislative filibuster, reconciliation rules would no longer apply. They would be able to pass any legislation they wanted with a simple majority. 

You can see how this notion appealed to a certain sort of seize-the-moment progressive, in that it presented a huge opportunity for sweeping change without having to negotiate with Republicans. During the Trump years, progressives had solidified control of much of the party's political infrastructure, and they had an expensive, expansive wishlist for the next administration. Eliminating the legislative filibuster was seen as an aggressive power play—a way to advance the agenda by ditching old, supposedly broken rules and norms. 

But as it turns out, the primary obstacle to the Democratic party's agenda this year isn't Republicans, and it isn't the filibuster. It's moderate Senate Democrats—most notably Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D–Ariz.), but perhaps a handful of others as well. 

Following the passage of the roughly $2 trillion American Recovery Plan in March, Congress has been locked in a debate about a pair of bills that are best thought of as a pair of linked pieces of legislation. Recovery funds aside, these two bills represent, in a real sense, the entirety of the Biden administration's first term domestic policy agenda. 

The first is a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that calls for about $550 billion in new spending. For better or for worse, this bill has clear bipartisan support in the Senate. 

The second is a $3.5 trillion package that is still taking shape, but in all versions is heavy on social spending. This bill is being moved through the reconciliation process, meaning it is intended to pass entirely with Democratic votes—which in this case would mean that every single Democratic senator would have to sign on to the entire package. In other words, either every Democrat in the Senate agrees on everything, or nothing passes at all. 

The all or nothing nature of this proposition was always going to make this an arduous negotiating process, since any one Democratic senator could conceivably kill the bill.  

But the widespread assumption throughout most of the year was that eventually they would come together on something that roughly resembled the $3.5 trillion plan that the Biden administration had put forth—perhaps at a slightly lower topline number, perhaps with some funding levels and priorities tweaked around the edges. But since no Democrat would get anything unless they all agreed on something, the expectation amongst Congress-watchers and insiders alike was that something would eventually pass. 

But within the last week or so, that's become far less certain. A large reconciliation bill may still pass, either this year or next, but it no longer seems quite as guaranteed. And the reason is that it's less and less clear that Manchin and Sinema will sign on at all. 

Manchin recently called for a "strategic pause" and reportedly even suggested in semi-public remarks that he would like to see the reconciliation bill put on hold until 2022. That's not quite a rejection of the bill. But a months-long pause would sap its momentum and create time for intra-party disagreements to fester. 

Sinema, meanwhile, has said she simply won't support a bill at $3.5 trillion, bucking progressive Democrats who already view $3.5 trillion as far too small a package. She also reportedly doesn't support the prescription drug price controls that are currently in the mix. 

Without Sinema or Manchin on board, no reconciliation bill can pass. Their votes—and their demands—will determine its final shape, or if it even passes at all. 

And while Sinema and Manchin are the public faces of the opposition, they are probably not alone. It is reasonably likely that there are at least a few other Senate Democrats who are privately uncomfortable with the current bill as well, but who don't want to be as outspoken about it. 

This brings us back to the filibuster. The problem that eliminating the legislative filibuster would solve is that the filibuster institutes an effective 60-vote threshold in the Senate, giving Republicans the ability to block legislation that could garner 50+1 votes from a Democratic majority. 

But the problem that Democrats have right now isn't Republicans or Senate procedure. Instead, it's that they're having trouble mustering even a simple Senate majority from within their own party. Perhaps in a world without a filibuster, Democrats could pass some chunks of the reconciliation package on party-line votes, but that still returns us to the central issue: Senate Democrats can't agree amongst themselves on their own agenda. There may not even be a simple majority for everything President Biden and Congressional Democrats want to do. 

The push to end the filibuster was always a power play by the ascendant Democratic left, who have come to view themselves as both purveyors of a broadly popular policy agenda and the rightful owners of the entire Democratic party political apparatus. 

While it is true that progressives have amassed considerable influence within the party in recent years, and the party as a whole has by most measures moved distinctly to the left, especially on economics, Democrats remain far from unified on these issues. 

The slimness of the Democratic majorities in Congress, meanwhile, suggests the limitations of the party's broad appeal. Democrats, it's worth remembering, actually lost seats in the House last fall, and only squeaked out 50 seats in the Senate by winning two unlikely runoff races in Georgia—races they might not have won had former President Donald Trump spread rumors of election malfeasance that likely depressed GOP turnout.  

Yes, Democrats won control of both chambers fair and square, but their victory was hardly overwhelming, and did not necessarily suggest a definitive public mandate for the sort of ambitious "cradle to grave" social spending agenda that the $3.5 trillion represents.

So at least where this year's reconciliation bill is concerned, this is not really a story of undemocratic Senate rules or GOP obstructionism. It's a story of progressive overreach. 

The filibuster, then, was a convenient scapegoat for the party's legislative troubles; the real problem, it increasingly seems, is that even amongst their own, there may not be enough support.