Progressives are making a mistake by pushing Senate Democratic leaders to do away with the filibuster. If their agenda is worth fighting for—and it is—it’s worth the inconvenience involved in confronting the threat of the filibuster and forcing the obstructors to stand up and talk for days on the Senate floor.
Some argue that President Biden’s agenda can only be realized if the requirement for a 60-vote supermajority to end debate is eliminated. Actually, the opposite is true. Democrats should force Republicans who are bent on obstruction to state their objections to the president’s policies on the Senate floor. Most of the time, the mere threat of a filibuster is permitted to prevent a vote, but many issues would lack enough senators to sustain a real filibuster.
Admittedly, if the number of filibustering senators is large, it may be hard to wear them down physically. But progressive programs are popular, and the way to advance them is by highlighting exactly who is standing in the way of progress. Drawing media attention and building public support increases the pressure on the obstructionists to end their unpopular activity.
Abolishing the filibuster is shortsighted, but reform may well be necessary. Here’s how: First, foreclose senators’ ability to filibuster the procedural motion to bring a bill to the floor by limiting debate to one hour. Second, change the cloture rule for ending debate from three-fifths of all senators (a supermajority of 60 when no seats are vacant) to three-fifths of senators voting. Those senators blocking cloture should be required to do so by being present and voting. Finally, the majority leader should eliminate or curtail the senatorial courtesy known as a “hold,” which is a de facto filibuster.
The Democrats’ elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominations in 2013 led to the confirmation by majority vote of three Supreme Court justices and 54 federal appellate judges, appointed to life terms by President Trump. It was a strategic mistake that will reshape the judiciary for decades to come. (One of us, Mr. Levin, cast one of three Democratic “no” votes in 2013.)
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