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U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speaks at a hearing on September 14, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speaks at a hearing on September 14, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sinema Calls for Restoring 60-Vote Filibuster for Senate Confirmations

"What she's saying," wrote one critic, "is this: 'Let's make what's already the most undemocratic body in government positively anti-democratic by enshrining minority rule.'"

Kenny Stancil

Right-wing Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona went beyond her usual defense of the filibuster on Monday to argue in favor of reinstating the Senate's supermajority requirement for all judicial and executive branch confirmations, drawing the ire of progressives who have long criticized the upper chamber's anti-democratic rules.

"Not only am I committed to the 60-vote threshold, I have an incredibly unpopular view," Sinema said at a lecture hosted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the lawmaker who bears arguably the most responsibility for accelerating the use of the filibuster to thwart the will of the majority. "I actually think we should restore the 60-vote threshold for the areas in which it has been eliminated already. We should restore it."

"Not everyone likes that," Sinema told her audience at the University of Louisville's McConnell Center, "because it would make it harder for us to confirm judges and it would make it harder for us to confirm executive appointments in each administration."

Journalist David Neiwert offered a progressive translation of Sinema's remarks: "What she's saying is this: 'Let's make what's already the most undemocratic body in government positively anti-democratic by enshrining minority rule.'"

The 60-vote threshold for non-Supreme Court judicial nominees and executive branch nominees was eliminated in 2013 by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in order to overcome the GOP minority's unified opposition to then-President Barack Obama's picks. As Senate majority leader in 2017, McConnell jettisoned the supermajority requirement for Supreme Court nominees during Justice Neil Gorsuch's confirmation process.

According to Sinema, "If we did restore it, we would see more of that middle ground in all parts of our governance, which is what, I believe, our forefathers intended."

Contrary to Sinema's suggestion, the filibuster rule she wants to strengthen is not even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution—whose framers sought to avoid replicating the disastrous Articles of Confederation—and was created mistakenly in 1806 by then-Vice President Aaron Burr.

As more than 350 historians, political scientists, and other scholars concerned about the future of U.S. democracy wrote last year in an open letter calling on senators to reform the filibuster:

It developed in the early nineteenth century as an exploitation of the Senate's generous rules of debate, propelled in part by proslavery senators seeking to protect slaveholder interests. Before the Civil War, filibusters frustrated the majority but typically did not succeed in blocking legislation altogether. More often, as was the norm, senators in the minority yielded to the majority after using the Senate floor to make their case.

During the Jim Crow era, the filibuster became more powerful, and was used not only to frustrate the majority but to block legislation: often, to maintain Jim Crow laws and stall civil rights bills. Changes to the number of votes required to invoke cloture—to end debate on a bill—were adopted throughout the twentieth century, formalizing the ability of a minority of senators to prevent votes on bills supported by a majority. Still, for most of the last century, filibusters remained rare.

Only in recent decades have filibusters effectively created a regular supermajority threshold for routine legislation, with prior norms of restraint all but disappearing.

The modern-day filibuster, which can be deployed via email, is "weakening Congress—while creating the very supermajority requirement the founders clearly sought to avoid," the scholars warned. "We fear it is also weakening democracy. The U.S. government is now saddled with more 'veto points'—features in a political system that can terminate the advancement of a policy—than any other advanced democracy. The result has been an inability to take action on broadly popular policies."

Despite McConnell's admission last year that "100% of my focus is on stopping" the Biden administration and other evidence that the GOP minority is using the filibuster to prevent a democratically elected majority from enacting popular legislation, Sinema—along with her fellow corporate Democrat and filibuster advocate, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)—has routinely claimed that a 60-vote threshold promotes bipartisan cooperation.

"It is fundamentally undemocratic for an elected official in the United States to publicly advocate for minority rule and for overturning the wishes of the voters who sent them to D.C."

By contrast, Adam Jentleson, executive director of the Battle Born Collective and Reid's former chief of staff, has explained how "the filibuster turbocharges polarization and gridlock." As Jentleson put it earlier this year, the minority party uses the 60-vote rule to clog up the legislative process and then hits the campaign trail to accuse the majority party of being ineffective. Without that option, the minority party would be forced to either negotiate in good faith with the majority party to craft bipartisan legislation or "stand on the sidelines."

In their open letter, the scholars pointed out that "over the last 30 years, nearly 80% of bills blocked by the filibuster were bipartisan, with the average supported by five senators from the other party; and almost a quarter of all filibustered bills in the last 16 Congresses were supported by senators who represented over 60% of the U.S. population."

"This dynamic is untenable for a democracy," the scholars wrote. "A government unable to produce results that significant majorities of the public elect their representatives to deliver is no longer a representative government. The disconnect between popular support for policies and a government's ability to enact them ultimately erodes public trust, deepens political cynicism, and delegitimizes that system of government."

But seemingly no amount of evidence regarding the filibuster's anti-democratic nature can convince Sinema to stop defending this potent weapon of political obstruction that experts say has been used to protect ruling-class interests for over two centuries.

"While it is frustrating as a member of the minority in the United States Senate—and equally as frustrating in the majority, because you must have 60 votes to move forward, that frustration represents solely the short-term angst of not getting what you want," Sinema said Monday. "We shouldn't get everything we want in the moment because later, upon cooler reflection, you recognize that it has probably gone too far."

Echoing a claim McConnell made when introducing her, Sinema said that "the danger of eliminating the 60-vote threshold is that the Senate becomes the House. And I remind everyone I left the House and ran for the Senate for a reason."

"The House, with elections every two years, representing a smaller goup of voters... they really represent the passions of the moment," the Arizona Democrat continued. "The job of the Senate is to cool that passion... The Senate was designed to be a place that moves slowly."

"The best thing you can do for your child," Sinema added, infantilizing tens of millions of U.S. voters, "is not to give them everything they want."

By definition, MSNBC's Chris Hayes tweeted, "voters... aren't children! But it's an incredibly revealing metaphor: Sinema and others like her are the Grown Ups. And We The People are spoiled children constantly asking for things."

Hayes' colleague Mehdi Hasan added: "Put aside how patronizing this metaphor is from Sinema, it is fundamentally undemocratic for an elected official in the United States to publicly advocate for minority rule and for overturning the wishes of the voters who sent them to D.C."

Sinema's lecture comes nine months after she refused to heed President Joe Biden's call to repeal the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation amid the Republican Party's nationwide assault on the franchise.

As Our America podcast host Sawyer Hackett pointed out Monday, Sinema has yet to hold a town hall in Arizona since moving to the upper chamber three years ago, underscoring her apparent desire to distance herself from the constituents she purportedly represents.

Champions of popular rule have long noted that the House is much more democratic than the Senate, where the principle of equal state representation gives a disproportionate amount of power to overwhelmingly white and rural voters in sparsely populated states that lean Republican and marginalizes tens of millions of people in more densely populated states that tend to vote Democratic.

Supermajority requirements of the kind endorsed by Sinema and McConnell only exacerbate Republicans' built-in structural advantage in the Senate and by extension, the Electoral College and Supreme Court.

"The filibuster," says Fix Our Senate, "gives veto power to a fraction of senators representing as little as 11% of the American population [and] cannot be allowed to continue standing in the way of progress."

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich shared a video Monday explaining how voters can make Sinema and Manchin "irrelevant" by electing more Democrats to the Senate in the fast-approaching midterms.

"Manchin and Sinema are Democrats in name only—and are allowing the filibuster to block the Democrats' agenda. They're acting more like the king and queen of the Democrats' agenda—deciding on their own to prevent critical measures from being enacted," said Reich. "It's time to dethrone them and get a Democratic Senate that actually delivers."

Only after securing the 50 votes needed "to carve out the filibuster," he added, "can we protect voting rights, codify Roe v. Wade, pass universal background checks for guns, and protect the planet."


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