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Harry Reid Says In Order To Pass Progressive Legislation, Democrats Must Abolish The Filibuster

9 min read

Former U.S. Senate Majority & Minority Leader, Harry Reid (D. NV), sat down with NPR yesterday in an interview and continued to push an issue that needs to be emphasized in this primary: abolishing the filibuster. It’s the only way to get progressive policy pushed through.

You want to get rid of the filibuster entirely in the Senate. Does this set a dangerous precedent?

If you look at where the filibuster came from, we didn't have one until 1917 and it was developed to cut off debate because it could go on forever. What has happened now is the filibuster has been used as a weapon to just have the Senate do nothing.

It used to be that the Senate worked quite well. The filibuster was there, but it was used on a basis of collegiality. It wasn't used very often. When something was extremely important to a member, they would exercise their rights, but it didn't bring the Senate to a standstill forever. Right now, the 60-vote threshold is what everything is now. Everything is 60 votes, everything.

In 2013, you got rid of the filibuster for most executive appointees in a gridlocked Congress that was holding up judicial and other executive appointees under the Obama administration. It was seen as the “nuclear option.” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then took it further and got rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017.

So, I moved to change the rules, as a result of that, Obama got his hundred-plus judges and his Cabinet spots filled. … It was the right thing to do. Now, that wasn't the first time the rules have been changed, they've changed lots of times in the past. But I think that now, with the Senate being basically inoperable because Republicans in Congress after Congress have just refused to get anything done. People are not able to offer amendments. It's just not good for the country. I think we need to take a very close look at getting rid of the filibuster, period.

Doesn't that create a situation where one party gets to railroad the other party depending on who is in charge of that upper chamber?

But at least it would be done with the majority. The way it is now, one party railroads; the other one, you get nothing done. At least that way you can get something done. Great if you're in majority. It's not so good if you're a minority, but the way it is now, it doesn't matter if you're in the majority or minority — you don't get anything done. …

It's important, because let's take some major issues the country faces. No issue in my mind is more important than climate change. It is devastating our world. The United States must be a leader in this. But with Trump and basically Republicans saying that climate change doesn't exist, we're getting nothing done, I mean nothing, we don't have a lot of time to spare. Take something like guns. Now, it doesn't matter how you feel about the Second Amendment, the fact is 90 percent of the American people believe there should be background checks for people that are crazy or criminals, but we can't get it done in the Senate. The filibuster should go so we can get something done on guns.

Now Reid doesn’t think Medicare For All or decriminalizing the border are winning issues for Democrats. He supports expanding and improving Obamacare and pushing through a comprehensive immigration plan and believes climate change is the most important issue to address. But even if he doesn’t agree with candidates like Bernie Sanders or Julian Castro on these two issues, he at least understands that keeping the filibuster makes absolutely no sense in trying to pass progressive legislation. In his recent interview in Vice, he emphasized how the filibuster has done more harm than good:

While Reid’s comments on healthcare and immigration put him squarely in line with the party’s centrists, he recently penned an op-ed calling for the elimination of the filibuster, a controversial view even among Democrats. That puts him on the same page as Warren, Buttigieg and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — but in disagreement with most of the current and former Senate Democrats in the race, including Sanders, Biden, Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

“The filibuster is just no longer useful. The Senate does nothing anymore. No one offers amendments; they can’t, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell won’t let them. All they do is vote on judges, that’s all they do,” Reid griped. “I think it would be better if the Senate have majority rule. Where did we ever come up with 60 being the magical number?”

This is why I support Warren over Sanders because Warren understands that she would be going up against Moscow Mitch whether he’s Majority or Minority Leader. The fact that Reid and Warren are on the same page here and Sanders isn’t is a real headscratcher:

Sanders is correct, of course, that sometimes Republicans have control of the House, Senate, and presidency, and during those moments, a supermajority voting requirement helps Democrats. But the notion that the filibuster helps Democrats as much as it helps Republicans seems fanciful. Progressives generally tend to support more change than conservatives, and the changes they do enact are more likely to stick. On the whole, repealing all the laws ever passed would benefit conservatives more than liberals. This is why Orrin Hatch correctly declared the filibuster is “what’s prevented our country for decades from sliding toward liberalism.”

Because the Senate’s procedures are so unwieldy, senators have created multiple carve-outs. They do not necessarily follow a rational pattern. Both parties have eliminated the filibuster for judges. That means passing a law requires 218 House votes, 60 Senate votes, plus the president, while just 50 Senate votes and the president — and no House vote at all — can confirm a jurist for a lifetime appointment that confers supreme final authority to strike down any law. Nobody would or did design a system with such a massive bias toward inaction.

And yet one of the oddities of the filibuster is that, even though it has repeatedly evolved, senators have come to treat its byzantine features as hallowed traditions passed down from on high. Sanders defends the possibility of passing his agenda by highlighting another workaround, called budget reconciliation. “I do think that every piece of legislation that I am fighting for can be passed with good legislative processes, including budget reconciliation,” he tells Terkel.

Budget reconciliation is one of the ways the Senate manages to hobble around the filibuster. It’s a rule that allows the chamber to pass annual fiscal bills with a majority vote. The rules are designed to allow changes to taxes and spending to pass with 50 votes, so that that government can enact budgets. But reconciliation bills can only enact changes to taxes and spending.

What this means is that a party that has control of government, but lacks 60 Senate votes, has an overwhelming incentive to cram its agenda into a form that can pass via reconciliation. But, as any expert in Senate procedure will tell you, it’s not a “good legislative process.” It’s a terrible legislative process. It forces the majority to make laws without being able to change regulations.

One of the obstacles Republicans faced when they tried to repeal Obamacare was that using reconciliation prevented them from designing an alternative even if they wanted to. Reconciliation would probably prevent Medicare-for-all or any real single-payer plan. Needless to say, any attempt to break up the financial industry, increase the minimum wage, or pass any other major reform would be completely ineligible under budget reconciliation procedures.

Sanders is trying to simultaneously argue that a supermajority requirement is needed to protect political minorities, and that there is already an effective process to let the majority pass new laws. The filibuster is bad for (small-d) democrats and (large-D) Democrats. That the most left-wing member of the Senate is justifying minority-rule processes whose only justification is to inhibit progress may be the single most baffling position any candidate has taken.

And Sanders wouldn’t be able to get Medicare For All or any form of single-payer health care system passed through Sanders’ proposed budget reconciliation rules changes:

Coming from another candidate, with a different to-do list, this answer might be reasonable. Reconciliation is a powerful tool that can be wielded to create or eliminate entire government programs. Bill Clinton relied on reconciliation to pass his welfare reform bill. Republicans used to it push through their tax cut in 2017. An ambitious Democratic president could probably use it to implement a carbon tax or a child allowance, expand Medicare or bulk up Obamacare.

But you know what almost certainly could not pass via reconciliation? The Medicare for All bill that Sanders has proposed. The problem is that, under the so-called “Byrd rule,” the Senate cannot use reconciliation to pass regulatory changes that only have an “incidental” impact on the budget. While the word “incidental” is open to some degree of interpretation, it’s a real limitation. When Republicans attempted to repeal Obamacare via reconciliation two years ago, the Senate parliamentarian concluded that important parts of their original bill violated the Byrd rule, such as a provision that would have locked adults out of the health insurance market for six months if they let their coverage lapse.

Sanders’ Medicare for All plan would likely have trouble making it through reconciliation because it effectively bans comprehensive private insurance. That’s arguably the defining aspect of his proposal, the thing that makes it a true single-payer system, and it would almost certainly violate the Byrd rule’s restrictions on regulations that only have an “incidental” budget impact.

Using reconciliation would also make it more challenging to finance Medicare for All, since under the Byrd Rule, legislation cannot raise the deficit outside the official budget window. There are ways Democrats could try to get around that limitation—they could pass a 30 or 40 year budget resolution, for instance—but chances are, any health care bill passed via reconciliation would either have to be paid for in full, or designed to expire within a decade (much the way pieces of the GOP’s tax bill are set to sunset).

Beto O’Rourke also supports abolishing the filibuster:


So does Julian Castro:

Do you support eliminating the filibuster?

Yeah. If the choice comes down to universal health care or adhering to a Senate rule that is not in the Constitution and has already been violated many times, then I’m going to choose improving the lives of millions of Americans by getting a universal health-care bill.

I’m not surprised that folks like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bennet would all support keeping the filibuster and Joe Biden is clearly out of his mind if he thinks Republicans are finally going to work with Democrats after Trump’s out. But it’s incredibly disappointing that Sanders hasn’t gotten on board with this, especially since he has been pushing the biggest and boldest proposals. It doesn’t matter if what he proposes is truly revolutionary. You can’t make a revolution possible without getting rid of an archaic, systematic rule that has been utilized to kill progress. Even Kamala Harris has been starting to change her tune on this one:


Sanders has proven to me that by not advocating getting of the 60 vote threshold, he’s not ready to take on the job as President. Yes, he can go to Kentucky and use the bully pulpit on Moscow Mitch all he wants as he did recently:

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) slammed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for “his obstructionism,” saying “there's very little that's going on in the Senate.”

“McConnell can vote any way he wants on an issue but what I find really outrageous and extremely undemocratic is his obstructionism and his refusal to allow major legislation to come to the floor for a debate and for a vote,” Sanders told Hill.TV’s Krystal Ball during an interview that aired on Monday.

“So essentially while enormous problems face this country — everybody knows it, there’s very little that’s going in the Senate, it is a do nothing body and that is because of McConnell,” he continued.

Sanders called on voters in the Bluegrass State to “demand that their United States Senate allow real debate on the floor so that we can begin to do something to represent working families.”

Sander’s comments came just moments after he took the stage at a campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky, where made similar criticism of McConnell.

“I say here in Kentucky to Senator McConnell — stop blocking legislation from coming to the floor of the Senate,” the 2020 candidate told a crowd of supporters over the weekend, which prompted cheers.

 But you can’t bully someone who doesn’t give a fuck. Because Sanders has failed to understand this, I cannot vote for him in the primary. If he gets the nominee, I will vote for him but Warren is my first choice in the primary and Harris is my second choice. O’Rourke, Castro, and Buttigieg are also my top choices but I feel like either of them would be a great VP choice. But all five of my choices are actually supportive of real systematic changes that would have a great impact on the American people. But if Sanders doesn’t understand that you need to take bold action to push through a bold agenda, then he’s not ready for the White House. I believe he could beat Trump but he’s not ready for Moscow Mitch and I think Sanders supporters should seriously take the time to think about.

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