Progressive Senate Democrats are pushing for the elimination of the filibuster, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia once again finds himself at an inflection point in the debate.
The filibuster is the procedural mechanism that allows one Senator to stop a bill, and the process can only continue if at least 60 Senators approve a cloture motion to end debate.
The Senate is now evenly divided 50/50. Democrats and President Biden worry their agenda will fail because they cannot get support from at least 10 Republicans. They want to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.
Manchin has said repeatedly he opposes that. “I will not change my mind on the filibuster,” he said recently on Meet the Press.
The man Manchin followed in the Senate, Robert Byrd, was a strong supporter of the filibuster. Byrd, who was regarded as the conscience of the Senate, wrote that the filibuster was integral to protecting minority voices.
“The Constitution’s Framers intended the Senate to be the last line of defense against tyranny,” Byrd wrote 16 years ago this week. “They meant for Senators to speak out against any would-be dictator or power grab by an overreaching Executive Branch.”
“This requires that Senators have the right to speak, perhaps without limit, and draw attention to new or differing viewpoints,” Byrd wrote.
The modern filibuster bears no resemblance to Jefferson Smith’s 25 hour non-stop speech on the Senate floor as seen in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Instead, today’s filibuster is triggered by a simple notification.
Still, as Byrd suggested and many scholars agree, the filibuster remains a critical component of deliberative democracy.
Richard Arenberg, a former long-time Democratic congressional staffer and author of a book defending the filibuster,* argues the procedure is necessary for bipartisanship.
“When crafting legislation, all Senators must consider the opposition,” he said. “They must compromise to accommodate others’ interests and concerns in order to avoid a fight that stalls or even halts legislation,” Arenberg said.
Filibuster critics complain the procedure has become an abused obstruction.
Gerald Seib, the veteran political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, reports, “In the last full session of Congress, in 2019 and 2020, there were 298 cloture votes. In the session 20 years prior, there were 58.”
However, Seib also writes that, “The fact that Senators of the two parties have forgotten how to compromise on big issues isn’t the result of filibuster abuse, but rather the cause of it.”
Manchin values his role as a centrist dealmaker, and without the threat of the filibuster, there are no deals—just partisan legislation. Today it is from the Democrats. In two years, it could be the Republicans rushing through bills without considering minority views.
Joe Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 to fill the seat vacated after Robert Byrd died. Manchin is, therefore, Byrd’s successor. On the question of the filibuster, Manchin must continue to channel his inner Robert Byrd and stand firm as his predecessor would have in support of the filibuster.
*(Defending the Filibuster: Soul of the Senate)