Just because a bipartisan group of senators agreed to a massive bill aiming to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure system doesn’t mean the Senate should hold off on killing the filibuster, opponents of the long-standing rule argued this week.
“We’re able to do a few things bipartisan, but we can’t do voting rights, we can’t do worker rights. We can’t do the kinds of systemic things like democracy reforms and worker issues,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told HuffPost.
At $1.2 trillion, the newly minted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the largest infrastructure bill in a century. It includes billions in new spending on roads, bridges, airports and waterways, as well as additional funding to expand transit, broadband and electric vehicles across the country. If it gets to his desk, the bill will prove a big accomplishment for President Joe Biden, who once predicted that Republicans would have an “epiphany” and work with him after he took office in January.
If there was a bipartisan deal to be had, it makes sense that it’d be on infrastructure. It’s one of the few issues that enjoys bipartisan support nationwide, and it’s politically popular. Even former President Donald Trump proposed an infrastructure plan.
But to vocal filibuster critics like Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one moment of cooperation doesn’t signal a broader shift among GOP senators on more controversial issues such as gun control, voting, climate or immigration. When asked if the bipartisan infrastructure agreement undercuts the case for eliminating the 60-vote threshold for legislation, Durbin said, “In a way it does, in a way it doesn’t.”
“You’re giving stuff away. You’re building things and in every direction, members get to cut ribbons and wear hard hats. You know, it’s the easiest bill in the world, in that respect,” the Illinois Democrat said of passing infrastructure legislation.
“I will also tell you I live in a world of the 20th anniversary of the Dream Act, and I’ve lost that on the [Senate] floor five times to the filibuster,” he continued. “So I don’t believe that I could bring together a group and negotiate anything close to what we need on immigration at this point.”
Congress has been stagnant when it comes to immigration reform, even on popular issues such as protecting some immigrants, known as Dreamers, from deportation. Biden last week announced his support for advancing some immigration changes, including a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, unilaterally via the budget reconciliation process. But it’s unclear how such changes would survive the strict rules governing the process.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a key member of the bipartisan group of 20 senators that drafted the infrastructure bill, called the filibuster “important” but suggested he could be open to reforms down the road on issues fundamental to democracy, such as voting rights.
“I don’t know that it makes any difference. I don’t know that you can glean much from one situation,” Tester said when asked if the deal he helped negotiate blunted the case for changes to the filibuster.
The push to reform the filibuster has no chance of succeeding at the moment. Biden, who often defended the filibuster when he was a senator, remains cool to broad changes even though he’s warmed to the idea in recent years. Democrats also lack the math to go nuclear and gut the rule, as there are a handful of moderates in the Senate who still support it. The loudest among them is Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who seems happy to hog the limelight on that front even if he isn’t alone in his party on defending the rule.
Manchin has repeatedly ruled out killing the filibuster in any circumstance. During an interview over the weekend, the Democratic senator said he couldn’t even imagine supporting a carve-out to the filibuster rules that would allow the Senate to pass voting rights legislation with fewer than 60 votes out of fear of a slippery-slope scenario. Instead, Manchin said he’s hoping to pass a “compromise” voting proposal that so far has only attracted the support of one Republican senator.
For Republicans, the bipartisan deal on infrastructure is more evidence of why the filibuster should remain on the books (it’s also partly why many of them voted to advance the bill, to show the country that the Senate is able to govern). In addition to fostering compromise, they argued, the filibuster forces lawmakers to produce better legislation ― at least better, in their view, than the $3.5 trillion “human” infrastructure bill Democrats are hoping to pass later this year.
“What you see is when we work together and really put the nose to the grindstone, we can get bipartisan support to move forward,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said. “That’s what the bipartisan group did, so I think it blunts the argument on the filibuster. I think this going to be better policy than what they roll out next week.”