Facing a Republican Party with a growing anti-democratic contingent, Democrats are debating what to do — to bolster their party and, in the view of some in the party, American democracy itself. At the heart of the discussion is how much structural reform do the nation’s governmental and electoral systems need.
This debate is largely happening in public, in op-eds and on Twitter. But it’s mostly in the background, lurking behind basically everything that is happening in the Democratic Party — like which issues to prioritize, whether to try to work with Republicans in Congress and, most of all, whether to ditch or reform the Senate filibuster. It’s often implicit, rather than explicit, as the people doing the debating are trying to persuade — but not annoy — a small group of people in the party who will ultimately decide the Democrats’ posture on these issues: President Biden and a handful of senators.
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However Democrats decide to proceed will have huge implications for the party and potentially the country. So let’s start by breaking down what I think are the three main camps in this debate and their visions:
Camp No. 1: We are in a Democratic and democratic emergency.
Key figures: Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, author and Democratic activist Heather McGhee, and former top Obama adviser and “Pod Save America” host Dan Pfeiffer as well as the progressive groups Demand Justice and Indivisible.
Ideas: Persuade Justice Stephen Breyer to retire as soon as possible and quickly confirm his replacement; get rid of the filibuster; with the filibuster out of the way, pass structural reform legislation, such as an updated Voting Rights Act, a raft of electoral reforms (H.R. 1), statehood for Washington, D.C., and an expansion of the Supreme Court by adding four new justices, as well as creating additional judgeships at the lower court levels.
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The people in this camp don’t agree on everything, but they foresee a nightmarish (and fairly plausible) scenario for Democrats, and they’re proposing a series of steps to avoid that calamity. Here’s the Democratic nightmare: Biden and congressional Democrats pass a few major bills over the next two years but leave the filibuster in place, preventing the passage of major reforms to America’s electoral system. A federal judiciary stacked with Trump appointees strikes down all or parts of many of the laws the Democrats do pass as well as many of Biden’s executive actions, leaving Democrats few permanent policy victories and driving down the president’s approval ratings.
Meanwhile, Republicans use their control of most state legislatures to draw state legislative and U.S. House district lines in ways that are even more favorable to the GOP than the current ones and enact laws that make it harder for liberal-leaning voting blocs to cast ballots. Combine gerrymandering, voting limitations, lackluster poll numbers for Biden and the historic trend of voters rejecting the party of the incumbent president in a midterm election, and it results in the Republicans winning control of the House and the Senate and making even more gains at the state legislative level in November 2022.
Post-2022, Republicans in Congress block everything Biden tries to do, further driving down his approval ratings. Meanwhile, Republicans use their enhanced power at the state level to continue to adopt laws that make it harder for people in liberal-leaning constituencies to vote and harder for Democrats to win in swing states. Then, these laws are upheld by lower courts and a U.S. Supreme Court still packed with Trump appointees. In 2024, Biden (or whomever the Democrats nominate) wins the popular vote but still loses the Electoral College — in part because Republicans have limited Democratic votes in some swing states. A GOP with control of the White House, Senate, House and most state governments in 2025 then effectively creates a system of “minority rule” in which Republicans can keep control of America’s government for decades even if the majority of voters favor Democrats as well as liberal and left-of-center policies.
In this scenario, the Democratic Party is in peril, but in some ways so is American democracy more broadly. So to this camp, Democrats must act aggressively and quickly over the next two years to forestall this outcome, by getting rid of the filibuster as it currently operates (most legislation requires 60 votes to pass in the Senate) and enacting an aggressive “democracy agenda.” This is a pro-democratic (small “d”) agenda in many ways, particularly in giving residents of Washington, D.C., representation in Congress and enhancing protections of the right to vote for Black Americans who live in GOP-dominated states. But it’s also clearly a pro-Democratic agenda (big “D”) in that it would, for example, add the two senators from D.C., who would almost certainly be Democrats.
Pfeiffer describes whether the Democrats get rid of the filibuster in the next two years as “the decision that will decide the next decade.” He argues that keeping the filibuster may be effectively “a decision to return to the minority and stay there for at least a decade.”
“The door is closing quickly in terms of us staying a functioning democracy. We have no time to waste,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy at Indivisible. “Democrats have been handed this power to save it. We don’t have two years. We have a year. The window to actually get things done is really closer to 10 months.”
Camp No. 2: Maybe there’s an emergency, maybe not; either way, just do popular stuff.
Key figures: Former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, Rep. James Clyburn, former President Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders and the liberal group Data for Progress.
Ideas: Get rid of the filibuster to pass popular legislation such as a new Voting Rights Act (H.R. 1), expanded background checks on gun purchases and an increased minimum wage.
The people in this group generally aren’t as alarmist as the this-is-an-emergency camp. They aren’t arguing that American democracy and the Democratic Party are at risk. And thus, this group generally isn’t pushing the most aggressive reform ideas, such as adding justices to the Supreme Court.
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But they are pushing for some democratic reforms — in particular, getting rid of the filibuster. I included a number of major Black politicians in this camp because they tend to focus on getting rid of the filibuster as a means of passing laws that protect voting rights. From this camp’s point of view, an updated Voting Rights Act is a moral imperative, regardless of its electoral impact, and the filibuster must go if it stands in the way. When Obama referred to the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic” in his speech last year at Rep. John Lewis’s funeral, he shifted the discourse in the Democratic Party on the filibuster, in my view, by casting it as a barrier to racial justice, a powerful message in an increasingly “woke” party.
This camp is thinking electorally too, though. For people in this camp, getting rid of the filibuster is a path to passing a bunch of provisions that are popular with the public, such as making it easier to vote and increasing the minimum wage. Getting those kinds of bills passed, in this camp’s view, would help Democrats win in 2022 and 2024. So one reason this group is not likely to push for adding seats to the Supreme Court, even if the filibuster is gone, is that adding justices isn’t that popular an idea. In fact, there is talk in liberal circles about carving out exceptions to the filibuster for voting rights bills instead of completely gutting it. That approach might appeal to this bloc in particular.
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Camp No. 3: We can and should work with Republicans.
Key figures: Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Ideas: Keep the filibuster in place and get more legislation passed on a bipartisan basis.
Democrats would need every Democratic senator on board to get rid of the filibuster, so these members are super-important. And over the last few months, Manchin and Sinema have said they are strongly opposed to getting rid of the filibuster. Longtime senators like Feinstein have hinted in the past that they are wary of such a move too.
Part of this opposition to getting rid of the filibuster reflects ideological differences — Manchin in particular is more conservative than most (if not all) congressional Democrats. So he probably isn’t dying to get rid of the filibuster to vote for a $15 federal minimum wage, for example, because it’s not clear he favors that idea anyway.
But this bloc also disagrees with the this-is-an-emergency camp about the state of American politics right now. Feinstein is fairly liberal on policy issues. But she, like Manchin and Sinema, has suggested she wants to work in a Senate that is not hyperpartisan and seems to believe that is possible. In the view of people in this camp, the Republican Party is not completely dominated by an anti-democratic wing that won’t work with Democrats. So members in this camp view getting rid of the filibuster and other more aggressive moves as not only unnecessary but potentially really bad — making the Senate and Washington overall even more gridlocked and polarized than they already are.
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“While eliminating the filibuster may result in some short-term legislative gains, it would deepen partisan divisions and sacrifice the long-term health of our government,” Sinema said in a letter to a constituent this month that was released publicly.
So all this discussion about changing the filibuster rules and then legislation that can be passed only if those rules are changed is moot if this bloc doesn’t move. But perhaps they can be persuaded by the leader of their party.
Biden seems undecided?🤷♀️
During the Democratic primaries, Biden positioned himself in Camp No. 3, the bipartisan-is-possible-and-desirable camp. He expressed doubts about getting rid of the filibuster, was even more skeptical of changes to the Supreme Court and hinted he could get Republican senators on board with his agenda.
But Biden took more liberal stands on policy issues after he secured the nomination. He seemed to be reacting to both the economic devastation caused by COVID-19 and the attention on racial inequality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, and also trying to secure the enthusiastic support of the party’s progressive bloc that had favored Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders during the primaries. And last October, Biden started signaling some openness to changes to the Supreme Court after Republicans confirmed Amy Coney Barrett instead of letting the winner of the upcoming presidential election choose the next justice, the GOP’s stance in 2016.
And in office so far, Biden has governed the way that Camp No. 1 has been urging — prioritizing achieving liberal goals over reaching out to Republicans. Biden’s first few weeks in office were centered on a blizzard of executive actions. The administration then pushed forward his economic stimulus bill with only Democratic support on Capitol Hill. Republicans have complained about both approaches.
“The danger is not in doing too much. The danger is in doing too little,” Biden chief of staff Ron Klain said in a recent tweet defending the administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.
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And when the Senate was debating its rules last month and the filibuster came up, White House spokesperson Jennifer Psaki was asked where Biden stood on the issue. She said twice that Biden’s position “had not changed.” Psaki’s comment was widely interpreted as signaling that Biden favored keeping the filibuster in place. But Psaki adamantly refused to say what exactly Biden’s position on the filibuster is, what position had not changed. It seems like Biden’s stance on the filibuster has edged closer to “no comment” than “I am permanently opposed to any changes.”
So I don’t think that Biden is fully in the bipartisan camp any longer. But I don’t think he is in the emergency camp either. Even after Barrett’s confirmation to the high court, Biden seemed uncomfortable with the idea of adding justices to the Supreme Court. That seems a bridge too far for him. I also don’t think Biden and his allies are as convinced as the emergency camp is that Democrats can’t win upcoming elections unless they enact electoral reforms.
When I talked recently to John Anzalone, who was Biden’s lead pollster during the 2020 campaign and remains one of his political advisers, he said he disagreed with the assumption that Republicans would make gains in next year’s congressional elections simply because of the historical trend that voters favor the opposition party in a midterm.
“The rules are changing. … All of that is out the door now,” Anzalone said.
He added, “I think we can’t underestimate how transactional voters are right now. They want action. I think that has major implications for 2022.” Anzalone argued that voters would see Republicans as a party of “inaction” if they spend the next two years blocking everything Biden tries to do, particularly in terms of dealing with COVID-19 and the economy.
It is, of course, entirely unsurprising that Biden’s political advisers are not conceding defeat in the November 2022 midterms six weeks into Biden’s first year in office. So perhaps Anzalone was just spinning me. But Biden and his team may determine they can accomplish some big policy goals, keep the president’s popularity up and do well in the midterms without having a big intraparty fight over the filibuster. Maybe they can do enough popular stuff with the filibuster in place.
Anzalone declined to comment on the filibuster question itself but said that, in his view, “voters don’t care about process.”
“People want bipartisanship. But action is more important than bipartisanship,” he argued.
How this debate will be resolved
Democrats can pass a lot of their economic priorities through the reconciliation process. But almost all the rest of their agenda can be blocked by Republicans as long as the filibuster remains in place. So the big question over the next two years is whether the party moves toward a final confrontation with Republicans and the bipartisanship camp over the filibuster. Here’s how such a confrontation would work:
- House Democrats pass one or a series of bills that are very popular within the party and poll well with the public overall (so a new Voting Rights Act, a background check on gun purchases bill, etc.);
- Senate Democrats hold votes on those provisions and get a majority of senators but not the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster;
- Biden and other party elites, like Obama, publicly say the bill or bills must pass and that if the filibuster is the barrier, it needs to go or at least be reformed. Biden would frame his embrace of gutting the filibuster as essentially, “I didn’t want to do this, but Republicans left me no choice.”
- There are public efforts by Democratic organizations like Indivisible to get their members to contact Feinstein, Manchin, Sinema and others in the bipartisanship camp and try to browbeat those senators into changing their minds on the filibuster; and
- There are private efforts from party elites, including Biden, to move these senators.
So technically, it’s not just Biden driving this process, since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would need to put these bills up for votes in their chambers. But in reality, I suspect they would defer to Biden. And in laying out that scenario, you can also see why this is a complicated process in which people can’t say exactly where they stand right now. If Manchin, Sinema and that bloc are never, ever going to back any changes to the filibuster, it might be unwise for the Democrats to do much to pressure them. Setting up Manchin and Sinema to be blamed by the entire Democratic Party for effectively preventing a new Voting Rights Act from passing is not ideal for them or for Biden. He might be pissing off the two senators who are most apt to tank his entire agenda anyway.
At the same time, you can see how this five-step process might be the most effective way to push these senators. Opposing getting rid of the filibuster in the abstract is one thing. It’s another thing to be the white senator who opposes getting rid of the filibuster when the filibuster is the barrier to passing a bill called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that is supported by basically all Democratic voters, top Black leaders such as Abrams and Obama and the sitting president from your own party.
Jeff Hauser of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, a supporter of getting rid of the filibuster, told me he is optimistic about how Biden is handling the issue so far. Biden is publicly “establishing a reluctance” to get rid of the filibuster, “demonstrating that it is not his preference” to do so and not coming off as an “angry partisan” on the issue, Hauser said. Biden, in Hauser’s view, is building toward the five-step approach I described above.
“I am cautiously optimistic that the filibuster will be gone by Labor Day,” he added.
As you can see, the arguments about the filibuster are really arguments about much deeper questions around race, democracy, bipartisanship, norms and electoral politics. At the same time, there is a simple, binary question at hand here: Will Democrats leave the filibuster in place as it is now, or change it? This decision is ostensibly up to the 50 senators and in particular the focus-on-bipartisanship bloc. But it’s also a broader conversation that includes Biden, other Democratic elites and potentially rank-and-file Democratic voters too.
For now, the bipartisan/Manchin (No. 3) camp has the votes on its side. And it might throughout the next two years. I would bet against Hauser’s prediction. But you could see the vote count changing — because Republicans’ increasingly radical behavior may be validating the alarmism of the this-is-an-emergency camp and strengthening their case that drastic measures are needed to preserve both democracy and the Democratic Party’s ability to win power.