Leading Democratic Senate candidates from around the country are open to at least reforming the filibuster, according to a HuffPost survey, with at least two supporting wholesale elimination of the Senate’s 60-vote hurdle.
The candidates uniformly argue that the filibuster has empowered obstructionists and prevented the country from making needed progress on issues like gun control and health care. Republicans currently have a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and Democrats are counting on the candidates in these targeted races to defeat incumbent Republicans and help the party win back control of the chamber.
So far, Democratic groups have reserved airtime for ads in Senate races in six states with incumbent Republicans: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina. In all six states, the leading Democratic candidate is open to eliminating the filibuster if the party wins control of the Senate in November.
“She supports getting rid of the filibuster so the Senate can function more productively and make a real difference for Mainers,” said Maeve Coyle, a spokeswoman for Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, who is expected to win the Democratic primary to take on GOP Sen. Susan Collins.
Use of the filibuster, which essentially requires a three-fifths majority to pass any major legislation through the Senate, has spiked in recent years, with Republicans using it repeatedly to stymie legislative progress during the Obama administration. Progressives, in particular, argue that the practice must be eliminated if key Democratic policy goals are to be passed into law.
During the Democratic presidential primaries, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and a host of other candidates lined up behind ending the filibuster, while several candidates called for more modest reforms to the practice. Former Vice President Joe Biden disagreed, and his eventual victory seemed to extinguish hopes of eliminating the legislative maneuver.
But the possibility of a Democratic Senate reforming or junking the filibuster was seemingly revived this past week by an unlikely source. Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, an avowed dealmaker and longtime defender of the filibuster, told Politico that he would be open to scrapping the 60-vote threshold.
“I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn,” said the Democratic senator, who is personally close to Biden. “I am gonna try really hard to find a path forward that doesn’t require removing what’s left of the structural guardrails, but if there’s a Biden administration, it will be inheriting a mess, at home and abroad. It requires urgent and effective action.”
Advocates for filibuster reform were overjoyed.
“Like Biden, Coons is a Senate institutionalist and in the past has favored centrist, incremental change,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy for the progressive group Indivisible. “This may not seem like much, but one of the leading moderates in the Senate, and a close ally of Joe Biden, is finally admitting that the Senate is broken and that we cannot achieve progress without looking hard at getting rid of the filibuster.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, if reelected, is almost certain to lead the Senate GOP in 2021 regardless of which party controls the upper chamber, has already promised to obstruct most liberal policy proposals. “Think of me as the Grim Reaper,” he told a crowd in his home state of Kentucky last year.
Among the Democratic Senate candidates looking to take Republican seats, at least two have been clear about ending the filibuster. Besides Gideon in Maine, there’s Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who told HuffPost during his failed run for president last year that he would support getting rid of the practice. A spokeswoman for his Senate campaign confirmed he still holds that position.
Other Democratic candidates have been more circumspect, leaving open the possibility of supporting reforms that would stop short of totally eliminating the filibuster.
“While Senator Ernst has consistently sided with McConnell at the expense of hardworking Iowans, Theresa will work to end the corruption and dysfunction, including potential reforms to the filibuster if that’s what it takes to get the job done,” said Sam Newtown, a spokesman for businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, who won the Democratic primary in Iowa.
A spokeswoman for Cal Cunningham, a former military prosecutor who is the Democrats’ candidate against GOP Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, pointed to the candidate’s website, where he says the Senate “should reform the filibuster rule that is too often abused by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to promote gridlock and stop votes on important legislation that would help North Carolina’s hardworking families.”
In Arizona, former astronaut Mark Kelly has a significant lead in public polling over GOP Sen. Martha McSally. “When he’s elected, Mark will consider how any changes to the way the Senate does business could help improve the lives of Arizonans,” campaign spokesman Jacob Peters said.
In Colorado, Democrats have long been optimistic about defeating GOP Sen. Cory Gardner. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, national Democrats’ pick in the race, said during a forum last month that he would “listen to any rule change,” quickly adding: “I certainly think the way the filibuster is being used now is a joke.”
(Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Hickenlooper’s underdog opponent in Tuesday’s primary, supports wholly eliminating the filibuster.)
In states that are ― at least for now ― more peripheral to Democrats’ hopes to change the Senate map, many candidates are cagier. Both state Sen. Barbara Bollier, the favored Democratic candidate in Kansas, and Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate in a Georgia special Senate election (to complete the remaining years of a retired lawmaker’s term), told HuffPost that they were still studying the issue. Jon Ossoff, who is the Democrats’ choice in a regularly scheduled Georgia Senate election against GOP incumbent David Perdue, has said he’s open to eliminating the filibuster.
Democrat M.J. Hegar, a military veteran who is the party’s likely candidate to challenge GOP Sen. John Cornyn, indicated that she was worried about how Republicans could take advantage of a rule change.
“When I look at the bills sitting in Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard that can’t even get a vote ― universal background checks, campaign finance reform, relief on drug prices, election security ― it is infuriating,” Hegar told HuffPost in a statement. “I am open to looking at any proposal that will get the Senate up and running again but we need to be careful of unintended consequences.”
The filibuster has already taken a beating in recent years. In 2013, the Democratic-controlled Senate eliminated the option for voting on judicial and executive branch nominees, except those to the Supreme Court. In 2017, in order to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, Republicans scrapped the Supreme Court exception.
Making voters care about a procedural change like the elimination of the filibuster is famously difficult. A November 2019 HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 31% of registered voters thought the filibuster was a good rule, while 29% thought it was a bad one. But a 39% plurality of voters were unsure.
Still, Republicans think they can attack Democrats’ calls to end the filibuster, arguing it would pave the wave for progressive proposals that most of the Democratic candidates don’t actually support.
“Ending the filibuster is the back door method for allowing radical ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal to be rammed through the Senate,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by McConnell allies. “Democrats who endorse this idea are showing they couldn’t care less about the tradition of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate, and they will own every radical proposal from the fringe.”
In the end, Democrats may have to pay a political price either for eliminating the filibuster or for failing to pass key items on their agenda.
“The choices are: You get rid of the filibuster or you accomplish nothing,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist who was a top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “It’s never going to be in Republicans’ best interest to cooperate.”