If President Biden’s plan for Covid relief ever passes the Senate, it won’t be with the 10 Republican votes it needs to clear a filibuster.
“I’m going to suggest that we get together and talk about what we think would be a reasonable package, and one that could garner bipartisan support,” said Senator Susan Collins of Maine to reporters after a conference call with a bipartisan group of 16 senators led by her and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, another necessary vote, isn’t just skeptical of the cost, he’s skeptical that the country needs another relief bill so soon after the last one. “I think at this early stage, just having passed $900 billion in relief, we need to understand where is the money going,” Romney said in an interview with CNN on Sunday. “It is important we don’t borrow trillions of dollars from the Chinese for things that may not be absolutely necessary.”
Without Republican support, Democrats have two options for passing Biden’s plan into law. They could use “reconciliation” — a limited-use parliamentary maneuver that lets any deficit-neutral budget-related bill pass with a simple majority — or they could end the legislative filibuster and rid themselves of the burden of a 60-vote threshold for action. Democrats could then pass the relief package and anything else they had the votes for.
The choice is simple. Change the rules and govern or leave them as is and struggle on the way to likely defeat in the next elections.
This isn’t the first Democratic majority to have to deal with this kind of problem. Sixty years ago this month, Sam Rayburn, the Democratic speaker of the house, faced a similar situation. The president-elect, John F. Kennedy, had promised to take America toward a “new frontier” of reform, including new civil rights legislation. But Howard Smith of Virginia, the 78-year-old Dixiecrat chairman of the House Rules Committee, was less than keen on making that journey.
The Rules Committee was where legislation went to live or die. It decided whether a bill moved to the floor for full consideration or if it was buried and forgotten. The 12-person committee was meant to act like a traffic cop, controlling the flow of legislation to the entire House. Under Smith, however, the committee used its broad powers to restrict the scope of activity altogether.
Smith’s main target was liberal legislation, which he blocked in partnership with William M. Colmer of Mississippi (the other Dixiecrat on the committee) as well as the four Republicans in the minority. What on paper was a committee controlled by eight Democrats was, in practice, a committee controlled by a bipartisan group of six conservatives, who only had to tie a vote to kill a bill.
For Rayburn, this was intolerable. He wanted Kennedy to succeed — or at least, to have a chance at success — and Smith’s control of the Rules Committee made that impossible. So Rayburn had to act. Liberal members had already conferred with him on how to break conservative control of the committee. He had three options. He could revive an old rule that would take all bills out of the committee after 21 days. He could purge Colmer and give his spot to a loyal soldier. Or, since committee size was set by majority vote of the House, he could move to make it bigger.
The first option would make the floor unmanageable. Rayburn still needed a traffic cop. And the second option would cause a schism as conservative Southern Democrats broke from the party to defend one of their own (and head off another civil rights bill — Rayburn had helped shepherd the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960). He chose the third. The Rules Committee could be as small as five members or as large as 15. Smith could keep his coalition. With three additional members, two Democrats and one Republican, liberals and moderates would have an 8-7 majority. They could block legislation as needed but they could also let Kennedy’s bills through.
Rayburn chose door number three, but not before acting as if he might go through door number two. After his meeting with House liberals, Rayburn’s office told The New York Times of a plan to purge Colmer from the Rules Committee. Rayburn tried to effect some compromise with Smith, but the Dixiecrat wouldn’t budge. At this point, Rayburn endorsed the plan to enlarge the committee. Smith could have stopped it there — the bill to add members had to go through him — but he allowed it through, on the assumption that Republicans and Dixiecrats would kill it on the floor.
On the last day of the month, Jan. 31, with Kennedy now in office, the House took a vote. According to The Times, it was a “tense debate that produced cheers and applause” as well as “derisive ‘ahs’ and laughter from members.” Smith and his Republican allies accused Rayburn of “packing” the Rules Committee and making it a “rubber stamp for whatever the new Administration proposes.” Rayburn, for his part, urged members to adopt the resolution since “This House should be allowed on great measures to work its will,” even “if the Committee on Rules is so constituted as not to allow the House to pass on those things.”
When the votes were finally counted, Rayburn had won, 217 to 212, with most of the Southern delegation in opposition.
“This triumph did not mean complete success for the New Frontier,” the historian James Smallwood wrote in a 1973 journal article on the Rules Committee fight, “it only meant that the entire House could consider its proposals and that the majority would rule.”
Here in the present, Senate Republicans aren’t the only ones pumping the breaks on the president’s agenda. On Monday, Manchin announced his total support for the Senate filibuster in an interview with Politico. “If I haven’t said it very plain, maybe Senator McConnell hasn’t understood, I want to basically say it for you. That I will not vote in this Congress, that’s two years, right? I will not vote” to change the filibuster.
Likewise, a spokeswoman for Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona said that the senator is “against eliminating the filibuster, and she is not open to changing her mind about the filibuster.”
In 1961, the prospect of gridlock and the possibilities opened up by a new administration motivated a coalition of liberals and moderates to change the rules and clear a path that would, in just a few short years, allow Congress to pass some of the most important legislation in its history.
Today, liberals see the opportunity of the moment. But moderates don’t appear to be frustrated enough with gridlock and inaction to change the rules of the chamber. They seem to think they can negotiate Republicans out of their partisanship and win votes for policies — a $15 federal minimum wage, a new Voting Rights Act — that Republicans have already deemed unacceptable. And they seem to think that failure won’t matter, that Americans won’t notice how the Democratic Party campaigned on help and assistance but never delivered. Yes, without the filibuster to protect them, moderate members will have to take the occasional tough vote. But their constituents will probably care more about checks and vaccines than whether their senator voted with their more liberal colleagues.
At this point, American elections are almost completely nationalized. The broad, diverse coalition that is the Democratic Party will either rise or fall together. Even members with their own personal political appeal need the entire party to win if they are to wield any influence over government. If Manchin wants the government to spend $4 trillion on infrastructure, then he’ll need the Democratic Party to succeed in as many areas as it can.
The first step toward victory is a government that can act. So, sure, moderate Democrats can keep the filibuster if they want. But they should prepare for when the voting public decides it would rather have the party that promises nothing and does nothing than the one that promises quite a bit but won’t work to make any of it a reality.
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