Senate Filibuster: Democrats Views Change

Senator Ed Markey (D., Mass.) during a hearing on Capitol Hill in 2019 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Many of the Senate Democrats who are now calling for changes to the legislative filibuster expressed different views on the 60-vote threshold when Democrats found themselves in the minority over the last six years.

In April 2017, 61 senators from both parties wrote a letter to then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and then-Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.) asking them “to join us in opposing any effort to curtail the existing rights and prerogatives of Senators to engage in full, robust, and extended debate as we consider legislation before this body in the future.”

The letter came as Republicans exercised the “nuclear option” to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court despite a Democrat filibuster, and as President Trump repeatedly urged McConnell to do away with the 60-vote threshold for all legislation.

But of the 26 Democrat signatories who still sit in the Senate, the vast majority now appear likely to disregard their past reasoning — mirroring the thinking of President Joe Biden, who agreed Thursday with the sentiment that the filibuster is a “relic of Jim Crow” after arguing for years that “it is about compromise and moderation.”

Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio)

THEN (March, 2019): declines to offer a statement on altering the filibuster while exploring a presidential run, saying “I havent really put a lot of thought into it yet, sorry.”

NOW (October, 2020): tells the Atlantic: “We’ve got to eliminate the filibuster. I don’t know if it has unanimity, but I’ve not talked to anybody that says ‘I don’t want to do it.’”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.)

THEN (February, 2017): “When you look at the past, when Democrats were in charge, we were concerned, well, what if Republicans are in charge, let’s keep that 60-vote threshold in place,” Klobuchar explained. “And it has been a long-standing precedent both the President’s nominee, Obama’s nominees, got over 60 votes. And that is the threshold.”

NOW (March, 2021): tells Mother Jones that she “would get rid of the filibuster” for Democrat election-bill H.R. 1 and has “favored filibuster reform for a long time.”

Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.)

THEN (January, 2019): “We should not be doing anything to mess with the strength of the filibuster. It’s one of the distinguishing factors of this body,” Booker said. “And I think it is good to have the power of the filibuster.”

“If Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Donald Trump for the last two years had complete sway they wouldn’t have just changed policy, which is nice, they would have hurt people in my community,” he further elaborated in a Pod Save America appearance.

NOW (March, 2021): argues that “for the sake of our vulnerable populations . . . the filibuster has to be reformed.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.)

THEN (January, 2019): also joins Pod Save America for a Q&A amid her own middling 2020 presidential campaign and shoots down nuking the filibuster in the name of bipartisanship — “If you don’t have 60 votes yet, it just means you haven’t done enough advocacy and you need to work a lot harder.”

NOW (January, 2021): “I’m of the view that we should eliminate the filibuster despite all the risks,” she explains, putting the onus on Republicans “to see if they’re willing to negotiate in good faith and willing to not hold common-sense things up and not have lots of party line votes. If that’s possible, then maybe we can govern with the filibuster.”

Senator Bob Casey (D., Pa.)

THEN (June, 2016): joins Democrats to filibuster the GOP majority into voting on gun control.

NOW (March, 2021): admits that “major changes to the filibuster for someone like me would not have been on the agenda, even a few years ago. But the Senate does not work like it used to.” Casey has not said when, exactly, the Senate stopped working.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.)

THEN (March 18, 2021): reveals to National Review that she had not even “gone that far in my thinking” in weighing how the actions of Senate Republicans could change her mind. “I just know that votes aren’t there to do it,” she said.

NOW: (March 19, 2021): reverses her position one day later, saying in a statement that if “Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster by requiring cloture votes, I’m open to changing the way the Senate filibuster rules are used.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.)

THEN (March, 2018): releases a statement touting her use of the filibuster to block the ADA Education and Reform Act, after successfully corralling fellow Democrats — “We will strongly object to any time agreement or unanimous consent request with respect to consideration of H.R. 620, or any similar legislation that seeks to weaken Federal protections for an entire protected class of Americans.”

NOW (February, 2021): warns that if Republicans are “going to be obstructionist and not allow us to get those priorities that I listed out the door to help the American people, then everything is on the table as far as I’m concerned.”

Senator Ed Markey (D., Mass.)

THEN (April, 2017): promises that “when the Democrats return to the majority and capture the presidency — which we will, that day is going to arrive — we will restore the 60-vote margin,” after Neil Gorsuch was sworn onto the bench of the Supreme Court.

NOW (March, 2021): says the filibuster is explicitly racist in origin, earning “Three Pinocchios” from the Washington Post fact-checker).

Senator Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii)

THEN (November, 2017): says the filibuster helps prevent “rushed garbage legislation.”

NOW (February, 2021): says the 60-vote threshold is “stupid and paralyzing.”

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.)

THEN (April, 2019): tells Politico that filibuster reform is “the one thing that people will not do. I really think that will not happen.”

NOW (March, 2021): says through a spokesman that “a discussion about the filibuster” is warranted “if Republicans refuse to work across the aisle.”

Senator Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii)

THEN (October, 2020): acknowledges her signing of the 2017 letter, explaining that “the filibuster is supposed to protect the voices of the minorities.”

“We’re in the minority. I don’t think our voices are being protected, so I’m open to that discussion, but it won’t happen unless the Democrats take back the Senate,” she said in a press conference.

NOW (March, 2021): now that Democrats have a razor-thin majority, thanks to Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, Hirono is ready for a conversation about changing the filibuster.

Senator John Tester (D., Mont.)

THEN (November, 2019): asked by National Review’s John McCormack: “Could you see any circumstances that would make you change your mind [on the legislative filibuster]?” Tester responds, “Nope.”

NOW (September, 2020): caught in a bind after signaling a willingness to change the filibuster, he backpedals “if there’s a lot of stonewalling that goes on, it doesn’t leave me a lot of choice.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.)

THEN (January, 2018): while he did not sign the 2017 letter, he appeared on television one year later — amid Trump’s urging McConnell to get rid of the filibuster — to caution that ending the filibuster “would be the end of the Senate as it was originally devised and created going back to our Founding Fathers.”

NOW (March, 2021): as second-highest-ranking Democrat in the chamber, Durbin says that “if enough members in the Senate agree, we’ll change the rules.”

Durbin cited McConnell’s actions as the motivation for his shifting stance, but failed to mention that McConnell had not used the filibuster once in the previous three years.

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