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Four years later, Senate Dems see filibusters far differently

Exactly four years ago today, most of the Senate Democratic conference formally endorsed leaving the filibuster alone. They've since changed their minds.
Image: Democrats Hold Press Conferences Pushing Back On Amy Coney Barrett's Confirmation Process
Democratic members of Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, exit the Capitol for a news conference on Oct. 22, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images

As Donald Trump's presidency was getting underway, there was some chatter about overhauling the Senate's filibuster rules to make it easier for bills to pass with majority rule. A sizable group of senators got together to effectively shut that discussion down.

On April 7, 2017 -- exactly four years ago today -- Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) issued this press release on behalf of a bipartisan group of 61 senators, each of whom agreed on keeping the 60-vote threshold for legislation in place. The group's joint statement was packaged in a letter to the Senate's Democratic and Republican leadership, and read in part:

"We are writing to urge you to support our efforts to preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions as they pertain to the right of Members to engage in extended debate on legislation before the United States Senate.... We are mindful of the unique role the Senate plays in the legislative process, and we are steadfastly committed to ensuring that this great American institution continues to serve as the world’s greatest deliberative body. Therefore, we are asking you to join us in opposing any effort to curtail the existing rights and prerogatives of Senators to engage in full, robust, and extended debate as we consider legislation before this body in the future."

In all, 32 Democratic senators -- technically, 31 and an independent who caucuses with Democrats -- signed their names to the letter, insisting that the Senate filibuster rules remain intact, presumably indefinitely.

Exactly four years later, five of the 32 senators no longer serve in the chamber (four were defeated in their re-election bids, while the other is now the sitting vice president of the United States).

One of the 32, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, remains a steadfast opponent of restoring majority rule to the institution, though he has expressed support for returning to some kind of "talking filibuster" tactic. A handful of other members, including Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), have been largely reluctant to say in detail whether they still agree with their 2017 position or not.

But most of the Democrats on the 2017 list, released four years ago today, have changed their minds -- including Delaware's Chris Coons who helped spearhead the pro-filibuster initiative in the first place. Some are demanding a sweeping overhaul that includes a return to majority-rule, while others prefer more modest reforms, but each on a core point: the status quo is untenable and needs to change.

It's important to understand why. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), one of the signatories, told the New York Times in January that he's keeping an open mind in light of GOP abuses. "I feel pretty damn strongly, but I will also tell you this: I am here to get things done," the Montanan said. "If all that happens is filibuster after filibuster, roadblock after roadblock, then my opinion may change."

As we've discussed, if members like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (R-Ariz.) remain committed to the dysfunctional status quo, it doesn't much matter, at least for now, what the rest of the caucus thinks. But exactly four years after most of the Senate Democratic conference endorsed preserving the legislative filibuster, the momentum has nevertheless shifted dramatically in the opposite direction.

The more Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his members refuse to work constructively on public policy, the more they push Democrats to eye institutional reforms they used to oppose.