The Democratic stimulus plan is a major accomplishment, but to achieve his agenda, Biden will have to turn the Senate upside down. It will be an epic struggle.
Though a bit of a bore in Canada, debates on Senate reform in the United States today are a vital issue. The debate rages on in Washington over the rules of the distinguished upper house, so much so that Machiavelli himself would learn a great deal from these protagonists.
To succeed in his presidency, Joe Biden needs to really shake up the institution in which he spent 36 years of his life.
The Filibuster in the Hot Seat
The founders intended the Senate to be a chamber of deliberation among wise men, not a partisan arena. It was in this context of open-ended deliberations that the filibuster emerged, a strategy for blocking a vote by running out of debate time — a strategy that was used by Southern segregationists to delay the march of civil rights.
To circumvent this strategy, a cloture rule that required a 60-vote supermajority was instituted. Once rare, cloture votes have become the norm and give enormous blocking power to the minority.
The Power of the Centrists
Gradually, this rule has been cut back. In response to the systematic blocking of Barack Obama’s nominations, the Democrats established a simple majority cloture for nominations, with the exception of the Supreme Court. Republicans later erased this exception to ensure the appointment of conservative justices.
With the exception of “budget reconciliation” votes, such as Biden’s stimulus plan and his predecessor’s tax reform, all bills require the support of 60 senators, which is difficult in an environment where the slightest concession is seen by many as high treason.
The majority of Democrats now want to relax the cloture process, but some are still resisting. Institutionalists are reluctant to fiddle with the rules, especially since they fear the abuse they would receive if the Republicans regained the majority. For the few Democrats from conservative states, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the rule allows them to avoid voting for measures that are too progressive for their constituents without upsetting their Democratic base.
This Is War
The stakes are high. As we have seen with the $15 minimum wage, almost every progressive measure on the Democratic agenda is virtually doomed to be stalled.
Biden is trying to knit together a compromise that would, among other things, exempt the H.R. 1 bill, which deals with voting access and campaign finance, and some bills like it, from the filibuster. Republican leader Mitch McConnell is threatening to paralyze the Senate if Democrats change the procedures, although there is no doubt that he would do the same if the roles were reversed.
Democrats may regret relaxing the rules if they lose their fragile majority, but there are so many voices calling for it to finally be possible for the majority party in Congress and the president to be able to govern.