A diverse coalition of more than 60 progressive advocacy organizations and labor unions representing millions of people across the U.S. sent a letter Friday urging Senate Democrats to eliminate the legislative filibuster, a procedural relic that the groups describe as a “weapon of pure partisan gridlock” and a major obstacle to necessary change.
Addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the letter (pdf) from Fix Our Senate, Stand Up America, the Sunrise Movement, the Communications Workers of America, and dozens of other groups argues that nuking the filibuster “would not be a radical step, but a pragmatic response to gridlock and obstruction to help senators deliver for their constituents.”
“People want a government that works for them, not just the wealthy, well-connected, and entrenched special interest groups,” the letter reads. “That is why we are reaching out… to call on Senate Democrats to move quickly to fix the broken Senate and eliminate the filibuster as a tool that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] can use to nullify the results of the election and block progress on popular legislation supported by a majority of senators and a majority of the American people.”
The letter, first reported by NBC News, comes on the heels of the Senate’s marathon “vote-a-rama” session, an absurd spectacle of largely meaningless votes required under the filibuster-proof reconciliation process, which Democrats are using to push through a coronavirus relief package without needing support from obstructionist Republicans.
“It would be easier just to end the filibuster,” the grassroots group People for Bernie tweeted early Friday morning as the “vote-a-rama” process—which ultimately lasted more than 14 hours—dragged on.
New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore echoed that point Friday, calling “vote-a-rama” the “price Democrats must pay to avoid the filibuster.”
“The Senate will get to go through another vote-a-rama later, assuming the budget resolution passes and a reconciliation bill is brought to the floor,” Kilgore wrote. “Avoiding one of the Senate’s ludicrous traditions (the filibuster) means indulging another.”
While Democrats may succeed in passing a robust coronavirus relief package through budget reconciliation, the rules of the process would prevent the majority party from using it to approve other key priorities, from voting rights legislation to regulations aimed at fighting the climate crisis.
Spotlighting the constraints of the expedited budget process, HuffPost reported earlier this week that Democrats will likely be forced to drop paid family and medical leave from their coronavirus package because it probably would not survive reconciliation rules, which require provisions to have a direct budgetary impact.
“You can pass $1,400 checks through budget reconciliation, but you can’t pass emergency paid leave,” New York Times columnist Ezra Klein noted Thursday. “When Congress writes laws through budget reconciliation, it writes them with one arm tied behind its back.”
Scrapping the filibuster, and thereby allowing the majority party to legislate without such restrictions, would require the backing of the entire Senate Democratic caucus plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris—a level of support Democrats don’t currently have, given persistent opposition from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and skepticism from others.
In their letter, the coalition of 62 progressive organizations argues that transformative progress will only be possible if Senate Democrats unite to change the chamber’s rules and “end the gridlock and dysfunction.”
“The best way to restore a functioning Senate,” the letter states, “is to eliminate the filibuster as a weapon the minority can use to block an agenda that a majority of Americans have just embraced at the ballot box.”
Read the full letter:
Dear Majority Leader Chuck Schumer:
Voters across the country have made their voices heard loud and clear, culminating in the strong message that was recently delivered in Georgia. People want a government that works for them, not just the wealthy, well-connected, and entrenched special interest groups. They are sick and tired of the gridlock and dysfunction that is keeping the system rigged against them and their families and is preventing progress on the many critical issues facing our nation.
The results of this election have unlocked the door to change, but another clear obstacle remains: the rules of the United States Senate that allow a partisan minority to block legislation and will prevent the Senate from governing and delivering on the promises they made to voters if they are left in place.
To be clear, the filibuster was never intended to be used and abused the way it has been over the past decade. Despite what some will claim, the filibuster isn’t in the Constitution. The framers were explicitly trying to avoid super majority requirements for legislation, and until recently, the filibuster was only very rarely used to block ordinary legislation supported by the majority of senators. The notable exception, of course, was its deplorable use as a tool to block civil rights, voting rights, and anti-lynching bills, which is why President Barack Obama correctly referred to it as a “Jim Crow relic” that should be eliminated if it stands in the way of securing the rights of every American.
Even those of us who have supported the filibuster in the past now see clearly that it has become something very different in recent years. If the filibuster was ever effective in promoting bipartisanship and compromise, that is clearly no longer the case as use of the filibuster has skyrocketed while bipartisanship and consensus has plummeted. The filibuster has become a weapon of pure partisan gridlock and its abuse is a big part of what has broken the Senate.
That is why we are reaching out on behalf of our millions of members across the country to call on Senate Democrats to move quickly to fix the broken Senate and eliminate the filibuster as a tool that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell can use to nullify the results of the election and block progress on popular legislation supported by a majority of senators and a majority of the American people.
This would not be a radical step, but a pragmatic response to gridlock and obstruction to help senators deliver for their constituents. Senate rules have been changed many times over the years. In 2013, the Senate took some initial steps to end the partisan blockade of President Obama’s nominees. And just since 2017, the Republican majority eliminated the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees in order to confirm President Trump’s picks, and then changed the rules again to reduce the debate time for other nominees, including District Court judges appointed to lifetime terms. The Republican majority also made use of the budget reconciliation process, first used in 1980, to pass their tax bill with a simple majority. And most recently, they changed the so-called “McConnell rule” to advance President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee just weeks before an election after refusing to advance President Obama’s nominee during the final year of his term.
We urge Senate Democrats, under your leadership, to take speedy action to fix the broken Senate and make progress possible by changing the rules to end the gridlock and dysfunction. The best way to restore a functioning Senate is to eliminate the filibuster as a weapon the minority can use to block an agenda that a majority of Americans have just embraced at the ballot box.