Talking Points

McConnell's filibuster fixation is a Democratic opportunity — and a threat

It's been a discouraging year for opponents of the filibuster. Democrats' very slender control of the Senate means many progressive ambitions appear to be just within reach — except for the fact that Republicans can and do impose a supermajority requirement on any legislation they don't like.

The anti-filibuster campaign hasn't been all for naught, however. No, it hasn't yet led to simple majority rule in the Senate. But it has made Republicans nervous enough to back down on the debt ceiling fight: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday offered Democrats the opportunity to kick the debate down the road to December, rather than risk national default — and reportedly did so because he was nervous that Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) might finally drop their defense of the filibuster as it currently operates. "The paramount concern here is saving the 60-vote rule, saving the filibuster," an anonymous GOP senator told Axios

This is the second time in recent months McConnell has let Democrats have a victory to keep the filibuster around. Over the course of his career, the minority leader's default move has been to obstruct his rivals' agenda any way he can. But in August, he helped bring about Senate approval of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, one of President Biden's highest priorities, and he did so to reduce Democratic pressure on Manchin and Synema. "It becomes a very clear demonstration that blowing up the filibuster is not necessary to get big things done," said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

McConnell's maneuverings hint at a larger truth: The filibuster as currently constituted disproportionately benefits Republicans. When in power, the GOP's legislative agenda largely consists of passing tax cuts and confirming judges — two items that are already exempt from the filibuster and can thus be passed by a simple majority. Democrats have a broader to-do list, so the filibuster hobbles them to a much greater degree.

It's good news that America won't default on its debts, at least for now. For McConnell, though, his willingness to give victories to Democrats now and again is a form of tactical retreat — accepting short-term losses to preserve Republican power over the long-term. That's a reason for Democrats to keep up the pressure.