Manchin suggests he is willing to 'look at' Senate filibuster reforms

Manchin suggests he is willing to 'look at' Senate filibuster reforms
U.S. Department of Energy from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin made the rounds of the Sunday shows (four of them, in fact) for reasons we will not speculate on, but a bit of news did come out of it. On "Meet the Press," while speaking to the unpainted plaster wall that is Chuck Todd, Manchin added as aside that while he still supports the Senate filibuster, he might be willing to look at rule changes to make filibustering a more "painful" process for would-be saboteurs. Perhaps.

"If you want to make it a little bit more painful, make them stand there and talk, I'm willing to look at any way we can," Manchin told Todd.

What Manchin is talking about is a proposed reversal of filibuster rules, in which (currently) 60 votes are required to end Senate "debate" and move most Senate bills forward, to require senators demanding more debate to actually do the debating. Called the "Talking Filibuster," that's the sort of filibuster depicted in the famous Jimmy Stewart film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; a lone senator or a group of like-minded senators talk for as long as they can physically muster, blocking all other Senate business and grinding work to a halt in an attempt to prevent a vote from being taken. But that's not what the current incarnation of Senate filibuster rules are. In the current Senate, what is called a "filibuster" is use of Senate rules that require 60 votes to move to each new stage of a bill, from the motion to proceed to amendments to the reconciliation process. Each invocation requires a cloture vote scheduled two days later, plus 30 additional hours of debate after that, making it a simple way for the minority to turn proposed legislation into a semi-infinite process that threatens to consume vast portions of the legislative calendar.

That's the version that's in use today, but it doesn't have to be. The Senate has repeatedly changed filibuster rules in the past, each time in response to perceived abuses to the system, and can change them again with a simple majority vote. In the last few decades the use of the 60-vote rule to stonewall legislation has turned from relative oddity to daily occurrence, and may once again muster the Senate into tweaking the rule to prevent its now-constant abuse.

That Manchin is hinting (during multiple interviews) that filibuster rules could indeed be tweaked to "make it a little bit more painful," and especially his suggestion that a reversion to the talking filibuster could be the pain required, is a change from Manchin's usual unwavering support for the filibuster as necessary tool of the Senate minority, but Manchin also insisted he would continue to defend the 60-vote threshold.

That leaves Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as the sole Democrat expressing opposition to all filibuster changes—though many of the other Democratic senators are themselves cautious in their theoretical support. Killing the modern "filibuster" outright would still be a heavy lift, but a use of the filibuster by Republicans to block new planned voting rights protections as a wave of state bills seeks to recharge old Jim Crow laws intended to criminalize Black voter turnout efforts would put enormous pressure on Democratic senators to follow through.

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