Democrats Block COVID Relief in Senate Even as Some Threaten To End Filibuster


Senate Democrats aren’t particularly enamored with the filibuster — the procedural hurdle in the upper chamber that requires 60 “yes” votes to end debate on legislation in order to move it forward — at the moment.

In fact, NBC News reported Democratic Party insiders have set up a “war room” to end the filibuster quickly if they regain control of the Senate and the White House.

But at the moment, in the minority in the Senate and without control of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Democrats are perfectly fine with it — so long as they can use it to kill the GOP-proposed COVID-19 relief legislation.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats blocked the roughly $500 billion measure even though Republicans were able to get 52 votes for the package, something The Hill said “handed a symbolic victory to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.”

Many Republicans had been against further legislation and McConnell had predicted that roughly 20 members of his caucus would vote against spending more money. Only one ended up voting against it — libertarian-leaning Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul.

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Alas, 46 Democrats voted against it and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, made it clear that unless Senate Republicans were willing to spend much, much more than $500 billion, any legislation the GOP put forward was going to be unsuccessful in breaking the filibuster.

“Republicans are going to cut their original inadequate $1 trillion bill in half in a desperate attempt to find the lowest common denominator among Republicans,” Schumer said Wednesday in a speech from the Senate floor. “As the pain, the economic pain for millions of Americans advance, Senate Republicans are actually moving backward.”

The GOP, he said, “came out with what they call a skinny bill at $1 trillion. And we all know why. The right-wing ideology that has so gripped so much of the Republican party doesn’t want to spend any money.”

Of course, the Republican-controlled Senate has been adept at spending money — and plenty of it — since COVID-19 hit. It’s just not enough for Democrats, who passed a $3.4 trillion bill in the House and have said they would, as part of the negotiations, come down to $2.2 trillion.

Should the filibuster be ended?

“Let’s not have a skinny bill when we have a massive problem,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her Thursday news conference.

McConnell, meanwhile, called Democrats’ attitude problematic.

“Senators who share [Schumer’s] toxic attitude, who think the real enemy are their political opponents, I assume will follow his lead and vote no. They can tell American families they care more about politics than helping them,” McConnell said Thursday.

Of course, the Democrats used the filibuster to kill the Republican legislation. If some Democrats have their way, the filibuster will be gone come next January, provided they’re able to install Joe Biden in the White House and win enough seats to have a majority in the Senate.

The filibuster isn’t written into law but is part of the Senate rules. While a change to the filibuster can itself theoretically be filibustered, a so-called “nuclear option” exists where a simple majority can change the filibuster rules.

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This happened in 2013 when Democrats changed the rules to allow for simple-majority votes on judicial nominees for all federal court positions except the Supreme Court. In 2017, Republicans changed the rules to allow for simple-majority votes on Supreme Court nominees.

According to NBC, if the Democrats take control of the body after the 2020 election and have Biden in the White House, they might move to do away with the filibuster entirely.

A group called Fix Our Senate, led by Democratic Party insider Eli Zupnick, wants to turn the upper chamber into a rubber-stamp body — so long as the Democrats are in control.

“Our goal is to lift the filibuster higher on progressives’ agendas in advance of November and help them make it clear to a future President Biden and Senate leadership that they expect and demand speedy Senate rules reform in 2021 and will not accept more gridlock, delays and excuses,” said Zupnick, the former communications director for Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. “We are going to be very focused on the need for speedy action.”

Just not right now, when allowing a COVID-19 relief package to pass isn’t good enough, at least if that package isn’t as big as the Democrats’ want. You see, the Democrats are confident the GOP will come back to the table and see it their way.

“Each time McConnell said, it’s our bill or nothing, when it was a bill without any input from Democrats, when the bill was defeated they came back,” Schumer said Thursday, “and we actually got some bipartisan stuff done. I would hope they would do that.”

Of course, the $3.4 trillion CARES Act passed by the House didn’t have any Republican input at all. That’s because the GOP doesn’t have filibuster power in the lower chamber.

Will Senate Democrats pull the trigger if they have the votes? That’s the $64,000 question — although it’s worth a bit more than that, given the cost of the Democrats’ legislative priorities.

Former President Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet at John Lewis’ funeral, calling the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” and saying it should be done away with if it got in the way of passing a suite of voting reform legislation favored by the Democrats.

Biden — who was on the record as saying he opposed killing the filibuster in January — has expressed a willingness to explore eliminating it, although he gave lip service to preserving it.

“It’s going to depend on how obstreperous [Republicans] become,” Biden said in July. “But I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it.”

Beyond the question of how they got him to pronounce obstreperous (I’m going to guess it was spelled out phonetically on the teleprompter), this is the old protection racket argument. “Nice filibuster you got there,” Biden seems to be saying. “Shame if anything were to happen to it. So, I wouldn’t get obstop– … ostrepor– …  osteoarthr– … don’t be a bunch of dog-faced pony soldiers is what I’m telling you.”

The opposition doesn’t have a real filibuster if the constant threat of eliminating the filibuster exists.

Some Democrats seem more amenable to keeping it. One of them, surprisingly, is California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the more liberal members of the caucus. In an interview with Business Insider, she called it “part of Senate tradition” and said it “creates a sobering effect on the body, which is healthy.”

Electoral cupidity comes first for most of the rest of the left, though.

“If Mitch McConnell is going to continue to block everything that a Democratic president tries to pass the way he did with Barack Obama,” Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Business Insider, “then it will be time to get rid of the filibuster.”

“I suppose Republican intransigence could ultimately provoke me to [killing the filibuster],” Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse added.

Schumer, meanwhile, said last year regarding ending the filibuster, according to The Associated Press: “Nothing’s off the table.”

As soon as Democrats don’t get what they want, in other words, they’ll change Senate rules to get what they want. For right now, though, the filibuster is fine with them.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture