Kyrsten Sinema took to the Senate floor Thursday to reiterate her support for keeping the filibuster, dashing Democrats’ hopes of eliminating the 60-vote requirement in order to pass voting rights legislation.
The Democratic senator from Arizona extolled a country of levelheaded people who want to listen to each other and find their shared values.
“We face serious challenges, and meeting them must start with a willingness to be honest, to listen to one another, to lower the political temperature and to seek lasting solutions,” Sinema said.
And she praised a political system built upon bipartisanship, where the filibuster is a tool used to ensure that only the most popular legislation gets passed.
“What is the legislative filibuster other than a tool that requires new federal policy to be broadly supported by senators representing a broader cross section of Americans, a guardrail inevitably viewed as an obstacle by whoever holds the Senate majority, but which in reality ensures that millions of Americans represented by the minority party have a voice in the process?” Sinema asked.
These are all nice thoughts, but they’re completely divorced from the country and political system we have.
“Sen. Sinema’s defense of the broken status quo is wrong on the substance, wrong on the history, and completely ignores how the filibuster is currently being used and abused,” Fix Our Senate spokesman Eli Zupnick said.
First of all, plenty of legislation that is broadly popular with Americans does not get broad support in Congress. Lawmakers have plenty of incentive to block popular legislation, including appealing to base voters to get through a primary or thwarting the opposition party for political gain.
And legislation that manages to have strong support in both the Senate and with the public still often fails because of the need for 60 votes. Campaign finance reform, fair pay, a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants and gun control are all policies that fit into that category, doomed by the filibuster.
“Background checks are supported by 90%+ of the American people, including the overwhelming majority of Republicans,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America. “GOP members of Congress continue to oppose the legislation, however, refusing to even debate it.”
In 2013, background check legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) failed due to the 60-vote requirement, even though a bipartisan majority of senators backed it.
The filibuster is also not used in good faith. For decades, segregationists used it to block civil rights protections for Black Americans. Former President Barack Obama has called it a “Jim Crow relic.”
“History will remember Sen. Sinema unkindly,” Martin Luther King III said. “While Sen. Sinema remains stubborn in her ‘optimism,’ Black and Brown Americans are losing their right to vote. She’s siding with the legacy of Bull Connor and George Wallace instead of the legacy of my father and all those who fought to make real our democracy.”
According to the Brennan Center, there have been as many cloture motions in the past 10 years as there were during the 60-year period from 1947 to 2006.
“The facts are that over the course of our nation’s history, some of the most significant Civil Rights legislation has passed with one-party support, including the 14th and 15th amendments,” End Citizens United spokesman Adam Bozzi said. “And the filibuster, which has far too often been used to block civil rights, has been adjusted time and again.”
Sinema also expressed admiration for the filibuster because it “ensures that millions of Americans represented by the minority party have a voice in the process.” But under the current system, millions of Americans aren’t being heard ― unless they happen to be the senators from Arizona and West Virginia, in which case they are being heard nonstop.
In the Senate, every state is equal, regardless of population size. The more populous states tend to be blue. Therefore, according to Vox, Democratic senators represent roughly 40.5 million more people than Republicans do. The Senate is heavily tilted toward rural states that tend to vote Republican, lean conservative and are less diverse.
Bipartisanship in the Senate also isn’t necessarily a guarantee of broad support from diverse views. Centrist senators hold enormous sway in the Senate, and discussions around the infrastructure bill, for example, were dominated by senators from very white states.
Sinema presented an idealistic, rosy picture Thursday of what will be needed to bring the country together. She said the nation should “invest heavily in recruiting and supporting state and local candidates for office ― in both parties ― who represent the values enshrined in our Constitution” and work to “confront and combat the rise of rampant disinformation.”
Sinema made these remarks from the floor of the Senate, where just one year ago, a mob of Donald Trump supporters attacked, and overtook, the U.S. Capitol in an undemocratic attempt to keep Trump in power.
Since that time, Republicans have stood by Trump and, in many cases, embraced his lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Many of the candidates running for state-level office proudly uphold that fiction.
Sinema further claimed that getting rid of the filibuster to enact voting rights laws “will not prevent demagogues from winning office.” Yet it is Trump, the demagogue Sinema alludes to, and his election lies that inspired Republicans to enact the latest wave of voter suppression laws across the country. These laws would be overturned if Democrats enacted their voting rights bills.
Keeping the filibuster would provide “a critical tool to prevent threats in the future” if that demagogue wins office again, she argued. But the filibuster played little role during Trump’s first term. His major agenda items that failed in Congress, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, did so because he failed to secure enough support among Republicans.
Instead, he enacted much of his agenda through executive action like his Muslim ban and his family separation border policy. These items were upheld by a partisan Supreme Court packed with justices appointed by Republican presidents.
Sinema blamed the partisan tilt of the court that now threatens vital civil rights, including the right to an abortion, on the elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominees, first by Democrats and then by Republicans. But at no point did she mention that the court’s tilt is the result of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) unprecedented decision to not allow a hearing, let alone a vote, on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016.
Sinema’s speech presented what ails this country as a problem of “both sides,” something that could simply be solved by more listening and appreciating “Americans’ diverse views and shared values.”
“We must address the disease itself ― the disease of division ― to protect our democracy. … We must commit to a long-term approach as serious as the problems we seek to solve ― one that prioritizes listening and understanding,” she said.
While people may say they share vague values like liberty, equality and progress, the reality looks much different these days. Conservatives are trying to wipe out mentions of racism from the history books. Teachers are under pressure to ignore inequality and, by extension, ways to address those problems, to create a fiction that we’re all on the same page.
But bipartisanship is still the way to go. Sinema said that efforts to fix the nation’s problems along party lines “will only succeed in exacerbating the root causes that gave way to these state laws in the first place, extending our descent into a more fragmented America.”
In other words, Black, brown and other Americans who are finding it harder to vote will just have to wait longer for a Trump-beholden party to come around, because we certainly wouldn’t want to create division.