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Senator Kyrsten Sinema's filibuster speech was maddening

The Arizona senator's floor speech called for unity with those who seek to subvert our democracy.
Photo Illustration: Kyrsten Sinema

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., helped deliver a lethal blow on Thursday to desperately needed legislation to protect voting rights in America.

It wasn’t exactly surprising, given her previous positions on reforming the filibuster. But the way she did it — with a dramatic Senate floor speech that argued that it would be too divisive to pass voting rights protections by creating an exception to the filibuster — was a blow to our political culture as a whole. Sinema counseled her party to show tolerance of anti-democratic politics — an outlook that will not save this republic, but accelerate its decline.

At issue Thursday was whether Sinema would vote in favor of a carve-out to the filibuster, a rule which has effectively created a 60-vote threshold for most bills to proceed through the Senate. While she has consistently voiced opposition to abolishing or changing the filibuster, President Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders hoped to convince her to at least make an exception on the select issue of voting rights in order to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The GOP has demonstrated that it believes voting is not a right but a privilege.

Those bills are designed to make voting more accessible through policies such as requiring states to have a minimum amount of early voting days, and by reinstating federal regulations that help mitigate discriminatory voting practices. Making the voting booth more accessible is virtuous in and of itself. But the measures are desperately needed as a response to the growing wave of laws passed by Republicans across the country designed to restrict voting rights. Those laws have been fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was rigged against him. The argument for a carve-out is that even senators who favor the filibuster in general should make an exception when it comes to protecting the cardinal democratic principle of letting people vote.

Sinema rejected it. (As did Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but more quietly in a statement issued later in the day.) When she took the Senate floor Thursday, she voiced support for the voting rights bills, but she rejected the idea of the filibuster carve-out. And her argument on behalf of the filibuster, delivered in a tone that conveyed tremendous distress, was, well, maddening.

Her main argument was that supporting an exception to the filibuster would “worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country" by allowing the laws to pass without bipartisanship. “We have but one democracy,” she said. “We can only survive, we can only keep her, if we do so together.”

Here’s the problem: The Republican Party — from its most influential leader to its federal lawmakers to its state politicians — is unified in the belief that making voting universally accessible threatens its electoral strength, and that making it harder for people who aren’t Republicans to vote is crucial for maintaining power. Sinema needs to explain what kind of reform could possibly be drawn up by “listening and understanding” to a party that views a country that’s more robustly democratic as an existential threat. And she will not be able to do so, because the GOP has demonstrated that it believes voting is not a right but a privilege, and one to be extended in a way that tips politics in favor of Republicans. After all, Republicans have already used the filibuster to block voting rights measures four times since this Congress began.

In her calls for bipartisanship, Sinema is not just exhibiting indefensible naivete about the right’s anti-democratic agenda, she’s also betraying bedrock principles of democracy. "When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes," she said during her Senate speech. But enacting laws ensuring citizens can cast ballots should not be a matter of policy debate where one finds some answer "in the middle." Rather, it should be understood as the upholding of a democratic state’s obligations to its citizens. Moreover, Democrats aren’t asking Sinema to defend those rights through a coup, but by exercising the power they earned by winning a majority in the Senate. Both in process and in outcome, the Democrats would be shielding the structure of democracy from a party seeking to corrode it.

Though Sinema presented her demands for 60 votes for passing any law in the Senate as a commitment to the essence of American democracy, she should remember the filibuster is not a timeless feature of American government but a quirky Senate rule which came into being in the 19th century and has changed over time. It was mostly deployed sparingly over the course of American history —and often to repress Black Americans — before increasing during the late 20th century and then skyrocketing around the Obama era. As Princeton University historian and MSNBC columnist Kevin Kruse has pointed out, the filibuster was in fact at odds with the vision of the founders of this country:

The Founding Fathers, who designed Congress to be run on simple majorities, would have seen the filibuster as a perversion of their vision for the Senate. Despite recent claims about its centrality in the Senate's working, the filibuster was not a product of the founders' work, and it has never been enshrined in the Constitution. It came about after the fact, largely by accident, enabled by a loophole in the Senate's rules and a willingness of some members to exploit it.

The name given to the new practice in the mid-19th century showed what contemporary Americans thought of it at the time. A "filibuster," in the language of the day, was a plunderer or a pirate. Those who employed the newly invented scheme to block legislation and prevent progress in the Senate were seen, metaphorically, as exactly that — pirates who had hijacked the legislative chamber and steered it to their own ends.

Bipartisanship helps our government run more smoothly, and the impulse to persuade the opposition is a good one. But bipartisanship is not proof of wisdom, and partisanship cannot be conflated with recklessness. But more importantly, Sinema isn’t being asked to be a partisan of a party; she’s being asked to be a partisan on behalf of democracy. Earning the ire of those who are trying to take it down is a good thing.