With Republicans planning to obstruct the president’s agenda, some Democrats are pushing Biden to support eliminating the filibuster

Biden has already mandated mask-wearing on federal property and enacted stricter coronavirus testing requirements for those traveling into the United States. The president has also used the power of the executive pen to increase food stamp benefits and halt new oil and gas leases on public lands. Biden’s early actions have attracted praise from some of the most progressive members of the Democratic party, including the congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But much of what Biden has promised, including a massive coronavirus relief package, cannot be done through executive action. Instead, Democrats will need to get their legislation through Congress, as the party clings to the slimmest of majorities in the House and the Senate.

During his campaign, Biden promised to compromise with congressional Republicans in the spirit of bipartisan unity, but some of the president’s allies are already urging him to abandon that goal and instead advance his agenda by relying solely on Democratic support.

Those Democrats argue that the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already made clear he intends to obstruct Biden’s agenda, and thus the new president should not waste precious time by trying to win over Republicans in Congress.

Mitch McConnell with the Republican senators John Thune and John Barrasso.
Mitch McConnell with the Republican senators John Thune and John Barrasso. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

Three progressive groups – Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement and New Deal Strategies – released a memo earlier this month entitled What To Do When Republicans Block Biden, which advised the president against watering down his $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill to attract bipartisan support.

“We hope 10 Senate Republicans will support it, but are not holding our breath,” the groups said. “Biden has chosen to reject austerity politics. We hope that he will continue to stick to that approach, and go big always.”

Hours after Biden was sworn in, McConnell signaled he intended to maximize Republicans’ power in the evenly divided Senate, where the vice-president, Kamala Harris, can provide a tie-breaking vote for Democrats. “The people intentionally entrusted both political parties with significant power to shape our nation’s direction,” McConnell said in a floor speech. “May we work together to honor that trust.”

The filibuster

Much of the debate over Democrats’ strategy in the Senate comes down to the filibuster, a legislative mechanism that effectively allows the chamber’s minority to block bills unless they have the support of 60 members. With the filibuster in place, bills must have a supermajority level of support to make it through the Senate.

A number of liberal commentators have pushed for the elimination of the filibuster, noting that it was not created by the framers of the constitution. The modern-day Senate filibuster came into existence in the early 20th century, and it was later embraced by segregationists to prevent the passage of civil rights legislation.

“When the founders conceived of the Senate, they did imagine for it to be different from the House. It’s not clear that they imagined for it to have a supermajority requirement,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “If they wanted it to have a supermajority requirement, they could have put one into place.”

While eliminating the filibuster was previously rejected out of hand by Democratic leadership, some of the most prominent members of the party have come to champion the idea. Speaking at the funeral of the civil rights icon John Lewis last July, Barack Obama emphasized the need to strengthen voting rights, saying, “And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”

But the new president is not among those Democrats who have called for eliminating the Senate filibuster. Biden said of the filibuster last summer, “I think it’s going to depend on how obstreperous [Republicans] become, and if they become that way.” He added, “I have not supported the elimination of the filibuster because it has been used as often to protect rights I care about as the other way around, but you’re going to have to take a look at it.”

Asked last week about Biden’s view on the filibuster, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the president’s position “has not changed”. Two moderate Democrats in the Senate, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have also signaled they do not support scrapping the filibuster.

Some liberal strategists say Biden need not wait to see how McConnell will handle his presidency, given how the Republican leader oversaw the Senate when his party held the majority. After Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 elections, McConnell served as the self-proclaimed “Grim Reaper”, blocking any progressive legislation from being taken up in the Senate.

“We have a roadmap as to how [McConnell] has operated in the past, which is to be a one-man blockade,” said Stephen Spaulding, a senior counsel at Common Cause, a liberal government reform group. “He will abuse the filibuster rule to demand supermajority votes on nearly every piece of the majority’s agenda. I think we can anticipate that.”

People wait in line at the St Clements food pantry in New York City. Washington is increasingly pessimistic about the odds of Congress reaching a bipartisan agreement on a Covid-19 relief bill.
People wait in line at the St Clements food pantry in New York City. Washington is increasingly pessimistic about the odds of Congress reaching a bipartisan agreement on a Covid-19 relief bill. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

With that in mind, some Democrats are pushing Biden and the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, to cut to the chase and eliminate the filibuster now. Given that the president’s party usually loses House seats in the midterm elections, Democrats may have just two years to enact major progressive policies before they lose full control of Congress.

However, such a strategy could alienate some of the centrist voters who helped Biden win in November, particularly given the president’s repeated calls for unity and bipartisanship.

“I think that Joe Biden has to make the effort. He ran on the idea that he was a unifier, so he needs to make the overtures,” said the conservative commentator Tara Setmayer. “But don’t get hung up because we already know that Mitch McConnell is about to dust off the playbook from the beginning of the Obama years, and all they did was obstruct.”

Democrats have discussed the possibility of using a budgetary mechanism called reconciliation to advance their agenda, specifically a coronavirus relief bill. If Democrats use reconciliation, they can pass the relief bill with just 51 votes in the Senate. However, reconciliation would require Democrats to work within a very narrow framework to craft the bill, and it is possible some of the bill’s provisions would be thrown out as a result.

“It’s a circuitous way to doing legislative business,” Spaulding said. “If you’re doing this just to do it via majority, frankly you should be looking at the Senate rules and not trying to necessarily go through this laborious process if you don’t have to.”

As Washington grows increasingly pessimistic about the odds of Congress reaching a bipartisan agreement on a coronavirus relief bill, the elimination of the Senate filibuster seems more and more likely. The legislative mechanism may become a necessary casualty to provide aid to Americans suffering through a once-in-a-century crisis.

“I don’t think the American people are going to have patience for that level of obstruction like we saw during Obama’s term,” Setmayer said. “The country is in too desperate of a position for those types of political squabbles.”