A constellation of progressive groups is making the first big fight of Joe Biden’s presidency about Senate procedure, with progressives convinced they cannot get their priorities made into law unless Democrats fundamentally change how the Senate passes legislation.
The groups, many of which opposed Biden in the 2020 primary, are pushing to frame the Senate filibuster as a tool of racism and oppression, tying the procedural mechanism that makes it impossible to pass most legislation without 60 votes to its historic use in blocking anti-lynching and civil rights bills in the 1950s. And they’re already showing how willing they are to use that message against Democrats who aren’t already on board.
“We see the work of abolishing the filibuster as one of the major blockages to democracy reform,” said Rev. Stephany Spaulding, a professor and founder of Truth and Conciliation, which joined a new coalition dedicated to democracy reforms like abolishing the filibuster, expanding courts, and Washington, DC, statehood. “If we think about the history of the filibuster, it has impacted Black and brown communities for centuries because of the way it has upheld white supremacist ideas.”
Groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats were encouraged after Democrats won Senate control this month, seeing it as a sign that they could actually pass some of their priorities, like the Green New Deal, policing reform, and expanded coronavirus relief. They just don’t believe there’s much chance of doing that with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell empowered with the ability to block most legislation if Democrats aren’t able to win over at least 10 votes outside of their majority.
In a Jan. 18 memo, Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement urged the Biden administration not to water down legislation to entice Republicans to vote for bills and argued that Democrats in the Senate should eliminate the filibuster, which they argue would be easier to explain politically than failing to pass priority legislation.
“A quick strike against the filibuster in January will set Biden up to shepherd his entire agenda through regular order, with full committee involvement and proper levels of oversight and transparency,” the groups wrote.
Indivisible, a national progressive grassroots organizing network formed by former Hill staffers after former president Donald Trump’s 2016 election, also called for the elimination of the filibuster in its updated organizing guide, pointing back to former president Barack Obama’s difficulty in negotiating with Republicans early in his presidency despite Democrats controlling the Senate.
“The parallels between 2009 and 2021 are impossible to ignore,” the guide reads, warning that the party spent too much time negotiating and lost their majorities in the 2010 midterms.
Eli Zupnick, spokesperson for the Fix Our Senate Coalition, a group including unions and progressive groups dedicated to abolishing the filibuster, said they expect it’s only a matter of time before one issue becomes the tipping point. Republicans are broadly expected to block Biden’s agenda on high-profile issues like climate change, healthcare, gun control, and voting rights. Any one of those could serve as the fight that brings Democrats to the point of nuking the filibuster.
“Strip everything away and this is a fundamental choice: Do Democrats actually want to govern or do they want to not and then blame the minority?” said Zupnick.
Now progressives are pointing to the early struggles for power with McConnell as evidence that trying to get any agreements with Republicans will be fruitless. The Senate still hasn’t passed its organizing rules for this Congress after McConnell spent days insisting that Democrats agree to keep the legislative filibuster. He backed away from the demand earlier this week, but the stalemate delayed committee assignments.
“I think McConnell succeeded in dragging Senate business for a few days and one of the things we know is to expect Republicans to obstruct, delay, and engage in bad faith bullshit,” said Leah Greenberg, cofounder of Indivisible. “He is trying to run down the clock until the moment when he can take back Senate seats and resume his powers as majority leader.”
Groups like Indivisible and the Working Families Party have joined a coalition of social justice and progressive organizations called Just Democracy to pressure senators to abolish the filibuster. In a recent ad displayed in New York City’s Time Square, Just Democracy urged Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to eliminate the filibuster. The group has also launched ads that feature clips of Obama calling the procedural tool a “Jim Crow relic” that should be eliminated to enact legislation like a new voting rights act.
“We think about the over 200 anti-lynching laws that have been blocked by the filibuster, and even right now, while we’re thinking about COVID relief and criminal justice reform,” said Spaulding. “We can’t even get conversations brought to the Senate floor because of the way in which the GOP has used the filibuster to not legislate. This isn’t just for Black and brown people — this is for America. No one elects someone to not legislate.”
Groups like the Working Families Party, Indivisible, Sunrise Movement, and Just Democracy have all worked to connect the filibuster to problems that Americans are facing and have highlighted bills that could be obstructed by the filibuster if it remains in place.
“When we keep hitting a wall after a certain point, you have to decide if you’re going to just keep banging your head up against the wall or if you’re going to dismantle the wall through structural changes,” said Maurice Mitchell, the director of the Working Families Party. “We understand that Democrats have a razor-thin margin in the Senate and we also understand the nature of the rules of the Senate. Folks voted these Democrats in to figure out the solutions to create bold legislation to meet the crises that we’re in.”
A standoff between Schumer and McConnell this month over how to run an evenly split Senate ended after the minority leader was encouraged that any vote to abolish the filibuster wouldn’t pass because moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema reaffirmed that they were opposed to getting rid of it. But Schumer himself refused to explicitly rule out attempting to change the rule later.
Progressives say that sets them up for more substantive fights around the filibuster when legislation like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and coronavirus relief packages need to be voted on in the coming months. They say they’ll now also have time to get Democrats like Manchin and Sinema on board through pressure campaigns.
Indivisible members across the country have already begun pressuring Democrats to abolish the rule and have left the door open to more targeted campaigns directed at the two senators.
"For Indivisibles in Arizona, our new Democratic Senate is a huge deal! Over the past four years, we've worked tirelessly to flip both our Senate seats because we know a trifecta is our only shot at getting progressive legislation passed," said Lis Haskell, an Indivisible member in Sinema’s home state of Arizona. “If Senator Sinema wants to deliver for the people who pulled her across the finish line, she's got to be a strong advocate for getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate."
No Excuses PAC, a progressive political action committee formed by former staffers to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Zack Exley, a cofounder of Justice Democrats, has already begun targeting Sinema with ads centered around the filibuster that have aired in Arizona.
“Sen. Kyrsten Sinema seems to think things are working just fine in Washington, DC — she’s OK with the gridlock because it protects her,” says an ad airing in Arizona, narrated by former top Ocasio-Cortez aide Corbin Trent. “She thinks the filibuster should stay right where it is,” the ad narrated by Trent says.
“One of the things we want to highlight with the ads is that there’s a commitment to dysfunction and inaction that’s literally being supported by Kyrsten Sinema,” Trent explained in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “That inaction is costing us the ability to get checks out, to ramp up vaccinations, and the ability to save our economy in a real way. The trade-off of the filibuster is not worth it.”
The PAC also targeted Manchin in ads that aired in West Virginia about his reluctance for $2,000 stimulus checks — after the ads aired for a week, Manchin told local outlets that he was open to supporting $2,000 stimulus checks. Trent said the PAC plans to use the same strategy in Arizona to blanket the state with ads about Sinema’s stance on the filibuster on radio and in local newspapers.
“The PAC exists to say that Democrats have a once-in-a-generation chance to turn things around, and we hopefully have a once-in-a-generation need to turn things around,” Trent said. “We’ve got a slim majority, and we can’t screw around. We’ve got to get in there as a party and do tangible things for the American people. We can’t let half-assed, silly, old traditions hold us back.” ●
Paul McLeod contributed reporting for this story.