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Democrats Don't Have a Filibuster Problem. They Have a Joe Manchin Problem.

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Peter Suderman | 9.21.2021 1:44 PM

When Democrats took control of Congress earlier this year, there was a lot of talk about ending the legislative filibuster. Broadly speaking, the argument was that the filibuster gave a recalcitrant GOP minority the power to block policy changes favored by the majority party.

Looked at one way, the situation in the 117th Congress was ripe with possibility for the left: Democrats had won 50 seats (including Bernie Sanders, an Independent) in the upper chamber, plus a tie-breaking vote from the vice president—a narrow but clear majority. But the Senate procedural rule, in current usage, effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation, which in this case would necessitate finding 10 Republican votes along with a unified Senate Democratic caucus.

The reconciliation process, which allows for the passage of some legislation with a simple majority, offered some exceptions, but those exceptions were subject to various rules and requirements themselves—notably that reconciliation bills could only consist of provisions germane to the budget, which put certain sorts of social legislation off limits. But Democrats argued that the particulars of this process were tilted toward Republican priorities, like tax reductions, and that the underlying situation was inherently undemocratic.

If Democrats scrapped the legislative filibuster, reconciliation rules would no longer apply. They would be able to pass any legislation they wanted with a simple majority.

You can see how this notion appealed to a certain sort of seize-the-moment progressive, in that it presented a huge opportunity for sweeping change without having to negotiate with Republicans. During the Trump years, progressives had solidified control of much of the party's political infrastructure, and they had an expensive, expansive wishlist for the next administration. Eliminating the legislative filibuster was seen as an aggressive power play—a way to advance the agenda by ditching old, supposedly broken rules and norms.

But as it turns out, the primary obstacle to the Democratic party's agenda this year isn't Republicans, and it isn't the filibuster. It's moderate Senate Democrats—most notably Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D–Ariz.), but perhaps a handful of others as well.

Following the passage of the roughly $2 trillion American Recovery Plan in March, Congress has been locked in a debate about a pair of bills that are best thought of as a pair of linked pieces of legislation. Recovery funds aside, these two bills represent, in a real sense, the entirety of the Biden administration's first term domestic policy agenda.

The first is a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that calls for about $550 billion in new spending. For better or for worse, this bill has clear bipartisan support in the Senate.

The second is a $3.5 trillion package that is still taking shape, but in all versions is heavy on social spending. This bill is being moved through the reconciliation process, meaning it is intended to pass entirely with Democratic votes—which in this case would mean that every single Democratic senator would have to sign on........

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