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As GOP filibuster abuses continue, momentum builds for reform

Democratic proponents of reforming the Senate disagree on the details, but they agree that the status quo is untenable.
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

It was around this time four years ago when the discussion about overhauling the Senate's rules grew louder. A large and bipartisan group of senators got together in the hopes of effectively shutting that conversation down. In all, 61 senators -- 30 Republicans and 31 Democrats -- signed a joint, bipartisan statement in support of preserving the legislative filibuster for the indefinite future.

But as Republican abuses became even more common, and the Senate stopped functioning as a meaningful governing institution, many of the Democratic signatories to that 2017 joint statement started rethinking their position. In recent months, for example, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have all changed their minds about the chamber's status quo.

Yesterday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) joined them, issuing this written statement.

"The filibuster should be abolished or, at the very least, reformed to force senators to physically hold the floor to extend debate. Too often the filibuster has been used to block our country's continued march toward equality. We must change this.... I cannot support the continued abuse of the filibuster in the United States Senate."

The New Mexico Democrat went on to condemn Republican voter-suppression efforts and endorse the "For the People Act," his party's ambitious democracy-reform legislation.

To be sure, it's worth emphasizing that while these Democratic senators are walking away from the position they took in 2017, the details matter -- and they don't necessarily all agree with one another on the specific next steps. Some are on board with scrapping the filibuster altogether; others are eyeing more modest reforms of the institution's rules.

But they all agree on the underlying point: the status quo is untenable.

And they're not alone. President Joe Biden this week offered public support for a proposed reform to the filibuster rules. A day later, Politico reported, "Inside the White House, there is a growing belief that the president's agenda will be at risk — and the Senate itself at risk of irrelevance — if the current rules remain in place, two people familiar with internal White House discussions said."

Asked yesterday about Team Biden's position on the filibuster, White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told NBC News' Hallie Jackson that the president and his aides are "open to discussion" because their policy agenda shouldn't be "held hostage."

In case this isn't obvious, on-the-record comments like these represent a shift for the Biden White House in a pro-reform direction.

Politico had a separate report yesterday on a group of senators who believe the discussion about the chamber's rules may change if the Senate can actually start passing some legislation.

A group of 20 senators, mostly centrists but also including some more ideological members of both parties, is seeking to replicate its success last year in breaking a months-long logjam on coronavirus relief. The so-called G-20 hopes to develop bipartisan approaches to issues like the minimum wage, immigration and infrastructure, in the process providing a compelling argument against axing the filibuster — if it can produce results.

I'm highly skeptical that these efforts will bear fruit, but there is some merit to the overarching idea: the more the Senate breaks down, unable to function on a variety of fronts, the stronger the case for filibuster reforms becomes.

If there are Republicans who want to shut down the conversation about changing the Senate, the quickest way to succeed would be to prove critics like me wrong and start allowing the institution to pass legislation again.

Postscript: If you missed it, Rachel's discussion with Adam Jentleson on this debate is well worth your time.