Democrats Have A Choice: They Can Enact Their Agenda Or Keep The Filibuster

A $15 minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular but can’t get 60 votes in the Senate. The same is true for most of the Democratic Party’s major priorities.

Senate Democrats faced a setback Thursday evening when the chamber parliamentarian ruled they cannot include a $15 minimum wage in their COVID-19 relief bill. But there’s another way Democrats could raise the minimum wage and enact other popular parts of their agenda: They can get rid of the filibuster.

If Democrats can’t — or won’t — overrule the parliamentarian in order to pass the $15 minimum wage provision through reconciliation, a budgetary process that allows legislation to pass with a simple majority, they would need the support of 10 Republicans to break the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold and approve it as a separate bill.

That is unlikely to happen, given that Republicans almost universally oppose minimum wage increases, despite broad public support for them. And any number of other Democratic priorities will almost certainly suffer a similar fate if filibuster rules remain intact. Bills to protect and expand voting rights, prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people, enact immigration reforms, improve health care access, implement new environmental regulations or advance many other key parts of President Joe Biden’s agenda will die in the Senate, even if a majority of Americans and a majority of senators support them.

Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, gives opening remarks at the confirmation hearing of Rep. Debra Haaland, (D-N.M.), President Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of the Interior on Feb. 24.
Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, gives opening remarks at the confirmation hearing of Rep. Debra Haaland, (D-N.M.), President Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of the Interior on Feb. 24.
Leigh Vogel/Pool via Getty

Progressive Democrats who have for years advocated for ending the filibuster renewed their calls after the parliamentarian’s ruling came down Thursday night.

“Sixty percent of the American people want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour ... Yet because of the archaic and undemocratic rules of the Senate we are unable to move forward to end starvation wages in this country and raise the income of 32 million struggling Americans,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said in a statement after the ruling.

“Democrats should not be held hostage by Mitch McConnell to help struggling families,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted. “It is time to get rid of the filibuster to raise the minimum wage to $15 and pass the other bold policies that Americans voted for us to deliver.”

Other Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Alex Padilla (Calif.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) also used the ruling to argue for the end of the filibuster, which, as Schatz noted, has historically acted primarily as a tool to thwart civil rights legislation.

“The filibuster was never in the constitution, originated mostly by accident, and has historically been used to block civil rights,” Schatz tweeted. “No legislatures on earth have a supermajority requirement because that’s stupid and paralyzing. It’s time to trash the Jim Crow filibuster.”

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who wielded the filibuster at unprecedented rates during Barack Obama’s presidency, opposes its abolition. But Republicans are not currently the chief roadblock to removing the procedural hurdle: Moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) also favor its preservation, and without their votes, Democrats cannot assemble the majority necessary to change Senate rules.

Both senators have also been hesitant to support the $15 minimum wage increase, meaning that it might struggle to get a simple majority vote as a standalone measure.

But Sinema and Manchin both back other key parts of the Democratic agenda that cannot win 60 votes, meaning they are effectively making the choice to prioritize an arcane Senate rule and the increasingly inconceivable idea of bipartisan comity over legislative proposals that would benefit millions of Americans, and that majorities of voters favor.

“The filibuster,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted, “is killing our democracy.”

Senate Democrats last month introduced expansive voting rights legislation as Senate Bill 1 last month, positioning the package as their top legislative priority. Democrats and voting rights groups see the bill as an enhanced version of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court has largely gutted, and advocates consider its passage vital at a time when GOP-controlled state legislatures have launched an aggressive nationwide crusade to curtail ballot access. The Supreme Court’s 2013 invalidation of the heart of the Voting Rights Act, and the wave of Republican-backed voter suppression laws that have followed, have largely targeted Black and other minority voters. The Democratic legislation would implement national standards for voting rights, forbid partisan gerrymandering and overhaul campaign finance laws.

A majority of Americans support the main voting rights expansions the bill would advance. The legislative proposal itself enjoys the backing of nearly two-thirds of all voters and a majority of Republicans, according to a recent poll conducted by Data For Progress.

The House is likely to pass it, but Republican senators broadly oppose it, and with the filibuster in place, it has virtually no chance of becoming law.

Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.) arrive at the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.) arrive at the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill that would add anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Senate Democrats support the bill, and polls have shown that a majority of Americans support laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual identity and gender, as the Equality Act would.

The bill got only three Republican votes in the House, and is unlikely to gain sufficient GOP support in the Senate, which means the filibuster will grant the minority enough power to kill off another major piece of Biden and Democrats’ agenda.

“I don’t believe that Mitch McConnell should have a veto over fundamental rights and I’ve been very clear about that over time,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), an opponent of the filibuster, told the Washington Blade this week.

Another popular add-on to the COVID-19 recovery package could also wind up failing because of the filibuster. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) this week told HuffPost that it’s not yet clear whether Democrats will be able to use reconciliation to change annual child tax credit refunds into a monthly benefit.

Democrats touted polling this week that showed that 60% of Republican voters support the proposal, which would lift millions of families out of poverty. Some Republican senators support the expansion of tax credits but are more wary of monthly payments. The legislation’s future is unclear if it, too, would have to win 60 Senate votes for lawmakers to enact it permanently, instead of just for one year.

Other Democratic ideas ― from statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants ― will run into the same roadblock. Some might fail in the Senate even without the filibuster in place. With it, all of them surely will.

“What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills?” progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) asked Thursday night. “This is unacceptable.”

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