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Make Republicans Defend Their Opposition to Voting Rights Bills

Bring back the talking filibuster.
July 21, 2021
Make Republicans Defend Their Opposition to Voting Rights Bills
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) leaves the Senate chamber after a procedural vote on a sweeping voting rights bill at the Capitol on June 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. The measure failed as Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster by Republicans. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

On Monday, the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, went to Georgia to hold a field hearing about the need for federal voting reforms in light of the many voting-restrictive laws that have been enacted and are being considered by Republican state legislatures and governors since the 2020 election. Not a single GOP member of the committee attended the hearing. They didn’t even bother finding a witness to defend their case.

In short, Republicans gave Klobuchar pretty much the same response that Sen. Ted Cruz gave her earlier this year when she wanted to talk to him about his role in contesting the Electoral College results on January 6:

And why shouldn’t Republicans ignore Klobuchar and her party? After all, as everyone knows, the Democrats need 60 votes to break existing filibuster rules and pass voting-reform legislation. Since Democrats have only 50 seats, they would need to find 10 Republicans to join them, which ain’t happening. So, Republicans can continue to ignore whatever the Democrats are up to and kill legislation by sitting around and doing nothing more than playing Candy Crush on their phones.

The world’s greatest deliberative body, indeed. “To tweet or retweet?”—that is the only question.

Most progressive activists believe abolishing the filibuster altogether is the answer. But moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema have said, ad nauseam, they will not help deliver the votes needed to change the Senate rules and kill the filibuster with a simple majority vote. Back and forth the two factions have gone for months, caught in a political Chinese finger trap: The more each side pulls its way, the more stuck its party becomes.

The pivotal figure here is Manchin, who has insisted that he would not help advance major legislation unless Republicans could provide their input. But that goal is mighty ambitious—one might even say unrealistic—when most Republicans won’t even look at their Democratic colleagues.

There is, however, a way to make Republicans provide input that doesn’t involve nuking the legislative filibuster. Instead of abolishing the filibuster, Democrats should embrace the talking filibuster. That’s what the filibuster is supposed to be all about, right? Let’s bring on all the Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington nostalgia and filibuster in the traditional, conservative sense. Let Republicans partake in a robust back-and-forth as they debate the issues once again.

All that good ol’ Joe Manchin has to do is invite his Republican friends down to the Senate floor for a friendly chat. For however long they’d like.

Translated into Senate geek-speak, right now, 60 votes are needed to stop debate over legislation and proceed to a final up-or-down majority vote. That’s where the 60-vote threshold comes from. Unless 60 senators agree to hold a vote, a bill dies a silent death.

Reinstating the talking filibuster would effectively invert the existing filibuster rules and require 41 votes to continue the discussion. If 41 senators are committed to debating the bill, live and in person on the Senate floor, then, by all means, they can block the vote. But only for so long as they are willing to hold the floor and talk about it.

Thems could be the new rules, enacted with 51 votes. They could even be narrowly written so as to apply only to democracy-protecting legislation. No nuclear option is needed.

Making this change to the filibuster would be right in line with how President Biden and Sen. Manchin have positioned themselves.

“I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in March. “You had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking.”

“So you’re for that reform? You’re for bringing back the talking filibuster?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“I am. That’s what it was supposed to be,” Biden said. “It’s getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning.”

Manchin is pretty much on the same page. He told NBC’s Meet the Press, “If you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk, I’m willing to look at any way we can.” He had one stipulation, though: “I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority.”

Well, okay then. A talking filibuster would by its very nature require Republican involvement in the process. Perhaps Manchin would like to invite them to discuss the voting rights guidelines he floated a few weeks ago as the basis for a compromise on the sweeping For the People Act passed by the House?

Seems like a win-win.

Bringing back the talking filibuster would not be a panacea for all that ails our government. It won’t instantly make the United States Senate great again. Many of our systemic political problems arise not from Senate procedures but from macro trends involving illiberalism, negative partisanship, tribalism, and misinformation.

And as always, there is the shoe-on-the-other-foot question: There are some concerns that, should the Democrats institute new talking filibuster rules, Republicans could use them to block out all other Senate activity. (Theoretically, the rules could be written to allow parallel activities to occur or limit how many official working calendar days the debate could consume.)

But what other options do the Democrats have?

When it comes to protecting voting rights, President Biden has said, “We are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said, “Failure is not an option, voting is too sacred.”

Even Joe Manchin himself has said, “Inaction is not an option.”

Given these statements, they have to fight. Seems like the very least they could do is make Republicans talk it out.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.