Jun 22, 2021
On the eve of Tuesday's vote to begin debate on the For the People Act, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona published an op-ed defending the archaic procedural rule that Senate Republicans are expected to wield to tank the popular voting rights legislation.
"Sinema's argument amounts to an argument against the exercise of power at all since, if you use it, what happens when the other side does too?"
--Jamelle Bouie, New York Times
Headlined "We have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster," Sinema's Washington Postpiece regurgitates the well-worn argument that eliminating the Senate's 60-vote rule would backfire on Democrats by leaving Republicans with fewer legislative obstacles next time they're in power.
"My support for retaining the 60-vote threshold is not based on the importance of any particular policy. It is based on what is best for our democracy. The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles," Sinema wrote. "To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to expand healthcare access or retirement benefits: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to later see that legislation replaced by legislation dividing Medicaid into block grants, slashing earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, or defunding women's reproductive health services?"
But as observers readily pointed out, the filibuster does not protect Medicaid and other spending programs given that they can be gutted through the budget reconciliation process, which is exempt from the filibuster and requires just a simple-majority vote.
However, the strict rules governing reconciliation prevent lawmakers from using the process to pass legislation that doesn't have a direct budgetary impact, such as a bill expanding voting rights. Progressives argue that by refusing to touch the legislative filibuster, Sinema and other conservative Democrats are hamstringing their own party's agenda while doing little to thwart the GOP's.
Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said Monday that Sinema and other filibuster defenders are effectively arguing that "we should let Republicans destroy democracy now because at some indeterminate time in the future they may try again."
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie characterized Sinema's op-ed as "unbelievably weak" and said its "assertions range from being demonstrably false to disingenuous to delusional."
"Sinema's argument amounts to an argument against the exercise of power at all since, if you use it, what happens when the other side does too?" Bouie added.
Writing for the Post earlier this year, Tre Easton of the Battle Born Collective argued that fear of what Republicans will do if the filibuster is eliminated "shirks the responsibility to be proactive."
"History has shown that progressive reforms are hard to undo once they are enacted," Easton wrote. "Regardless of whether they say they like big government, people of all political stripes seem to appreciate the things the federal government provides them. Progressive expansions of rights and the social safety net have proved resistant to repeal through the legislative process."
"History also shows us that by its very nature, the filibuster benefits conservatives far more than progressives," Easton added. "It is an inherently conservative tool: It makes it harder to achieve change. Conservatives can get most of what they want simply by blocking progress, and they can achieve many of the rollbacks of rights and regulations that they seek through the courts and other means. Progressives, on the other hand, require large-scale legislation to achieve their goals."
Sinema's latest defense of the filibuster came as she faced growing grassroots pressure to end her support for the 60-vote rule, which is standing in the way of not just the For the People Act but also the Equality Act, immigration reform, and other Democratic agenda items. A simple-majority vote is needed to eliminate or reform the filibuster.
On Monday, more than 140 LGBTQ+ Arizonans signed an open letter demanding that Sinema "join in the movement to end the filibuster."
"The choice for senators today is clear: It's either protecting Americans' voting rights and strengthening our democracy or preserving the Jim Crow filibuster."
--Eli Zupnick, Fix Our Senate
"By casting the decisive vote to end the filibuster, you would open the flood gates of possibility to pass popular reforms supported by the majority of Americans. Among these transformative reforms, the Equality Act, which you cosponsored, will prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federally funded programs, credit, and jury service," the letter reads. "We have a rare opportunity in this moment in history."
Ahead of Tuesday's expected procedural vote on the For the People Act, the advocacy group Fix Our Senate launched a seven-figure ad campaign pressing Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster if the legislation fails to advance. If passed, the bill would neutralize hundreds of voter suppression bills that Republicans have introduced at the state level across the country.
"The choice for senators today is clear: It's either protecting Americans' voting rights and strengthening our democracy or preserving the Jim Crow filibuster," said Fix Our Senate spokesperson Eli Zupnick.
Under current Senate rules, even a motion to proceed to debate on legislation can be filibustered--a reality that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) alluded to in floor remarks previewing Tuesday's vote.
"Tomorrow, the Senate will take a vote on whether to start debate on legislation to protect Americans' voting rights," Schumer said Monday. "It is not a vote on any particular policy. It is not a vote on this bill or that bill. It is a vote on whether the Senate should simply debate the issue about voting rights, the crucial issue of voting rights, in this country."
"Now, by all rights, we shouldn't have to debate voting rights on the floor of the United States Senate," Schumer added. "These rights should be sacrosanct. But the events of the last few months compel us to have this debate--now."
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