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Schumer offers a big hint about his plans for the Senate's future

Chuck Schumer has been neutral on filibuster reforms. To protect voting rights, it doesn't sound like he'll remain neutral much longer.


A growing number of Senate Democrats have voiced support for reforming existing filibuster rules, if not for all legislation, then at least to protect Americans' voting rights. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, has been far more cautious about stating his preferred course.

Indeed, for nearly a year, the New York Democrat has gone out of his way to remain neutral in the larger fight over the future of majority-rule in the chamber. Asked for his opinion, Schumer has repeatedly noted the differences of opinion within his caucus — at which point he carefully changes the subject.

Yesterday, however, after the Republican minority refused to allow a debate to proceed on the Freedom to Vote Act, the Senate majority leader delivered interesting floor remarks that seemed to hint in an important direction. From Schumer's prepared remarks:

"What we saw from Republicans today is not how the Senate is supposed to work. This is supposed to be the world's greatest deliberative body, where we debate, forge compromise, amend and pass legislation to help the American people. That is the legacy of this great chamber. The Senate needs to be restored to its rightful status as the world's greatest deliberative body."

The phrasing stood out for me because it echoes the point reform advocates have pushed in recent years: Reforming the filibuster rules isn't about creating a new and different kind of Senate; it's about returning to the way the institution used to work before the routinization of filibuster abuses.

To "restore" the Senate "to its rightful status" would mean rejecting the status quo and returning to majority rule. (Maine Sen. Angus King raised a related point on the show last night, telling Rachel, "The filibuster is not in the Constitution; we need to restore the Senate to what it was.")

Schumer went on to describe the political landscape in the wake of the Civil War:

"At the time, the Congress set to work on granting newly-freed slaves the basic freedoms that had long been denied to them. These freedoms were eventually enshrined in the 14th and 15th amendments, granting due process and the right to vote to all citizens regardless of color or race.... [A]t the time, the minority party in both chambers refused to offer a single vote for any of the civil rights legislation put forward during Reconstruction. Not one vote. Not one vote. They argued these bills represented nothing more than the partisan interests of the majority — a power grab, they said, from vengeful northerners. But that didn't stop the majority. If expanding basic freedoms meant going it alone, that was something they were willing to do."

This, too, seemed like a message designed specifically to both persuade West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who's voiced opposition to protecting voting rights through majority rule, and justify a carve-out to the existing filibuster.

What's more, Schumer's reflection on history has the benefit of being true: In 1869, Congress approved the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, indifferent to its "partisan" nature. The idea that voting-rights protections had to be bipartisan to be legitimate was explicitly rejected.

Schumer concluded:

"To the patriots after the Civil War, this wasn't partisan — it was patriotic, and American Democracy is better off today because the patriots in this chamber at that time were undeterred by minority obstruction.... Today, the question before the Senate is how we will find a path forward on protecting our freedoms in the 21st century. Members of this body now face a choice — they can follow in the footsteps of our patriotic predecessors in this chamber. Or they can sit by as the fabric of our democracy unravels before our very eyes."

This did not sound like a Senate leader who's prepared to remain neutral on the issue much longer.