Wednesday’s narrow vote changed Senate races, starting in 2022.
The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, January 21, 2022
Washington wisdom once held that while Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were the public faces of Democratic reluctance to breaking the Senate filibuster, others in the caucus quietly supported the duo. But on Wednesday night, 48 out of 50 Senate Democrats voted to use the “nuclear option” in an attempt to overturn election laws in most states.
That means the partisan abolition of the Senate’s 60-vote requirement for most legislation is no longer an abstraction. It’s an institutional Democratic Party position—a trigger that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has committed to pull as soon as he has 50 votes and a co-partisan as Vice President. Democrats may have failed to ram their legislation through this week, but they have changed the nature of the U.S. Senate merely by trying to make it a majoritarian body for the first time. The fallout should start in this year’s midterms in competitive states.
Mr. Schumer brought partisan voting-rules legislation to the floor Wednesday despite the insistence of Sens. Sinema and Manchin that they wouldn’t change Senate rules to allow it to pass with only 50 votes. Democrats then embarked on a flight of procedural fantasy, claiming they could prevail by demanding only a “talking filibuster”—a meaningless distinction as their version would still guarantee the legislation could be rammed through.
They lost 48 to 52, but the paucity of Democratic dissenters is astonishing given recent Senate history. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Senator from California, went along after defending the filibuster well into the new Congress. She said last June that she might scrap the filibuster if “democracy were in jeopardy,” but “I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now.”
Chris Coons, the Delaware Senator who cultivates a bipartisan reputation, also voted to destroy the filibuster. In 2017 he led a coalition of 32 Democrats declaring they are “united in their determination” to maintain it. Twenty-nine GOP Senators also signed Mr. Coons’s letter. That’s right: While only two Democrats still back the filibuster under Mr. Biden, more than half of the Republican caucus supported it as a guardrail on their own majority under Donald Trump.
Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, who had been noncommittal on the issue, also fell in line, though he faces a competitive election this November. He likely fears a Democratic primary challenge, but his vote will put new issues at play in the general election. Now that he’s committed to torch Senate rules on a partisan basis, a simple Democratic majority could add states to the U.S. or pack the Supreme Court.
When rules constrain Senate partisanship, voters in swing states can view candidates as independent figures rather than partisan foot-soldiers. Now that changes: To elect even a 50-50 Senate with a Democratic President could be to authorize much of the progressive agenda.
This will be a hard perception to shake on the 2022 campaign trail for Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and Michael Bennet in Colorado, both of whom also signed Mr. Coons’s 2017 letter, and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. Raphael Warnock of Georgia benefited in his 2021 runoff election from Mr. Manchin’s 2020 promise that he wouldn’t eliminate the filibuster in a 50-50 Senate. Now voters need to keep in mind that Mr. Manchin’s commitment means nothing if Democrats pick up two seats in 2022.
As for Republicans, the next GOP Senate majority will now be under much more pressure to eliminate the filibuster as a pre-emptive procedural strike. Populist Senators will point to this week’s vote to say that Democrats are planning to change the rules as soon as they get back into power. GOP leader Mitch McConnell and other institutionalists will have more trouble talking them down.
The intellectuals pushing to kill the filibuster claim the Senate’s structure is biased against Democrats, and may lock them out of power for a decade. That claim is wildly exaggerated—weren’t Democrats eyeing a 53 or 54 seat majority in 2020? But if it were true, then it would be even more short-sighted to dismantle protections for the minority party.
Speaking of short-sighted, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are already opening the door to primary challenges to Sens. Manchin and Sinema. Good luck keeping the seat with another candidate in West Virginia, where Mr. Trump won by 39 points. Progressives want to take revenge on a moderate Democrat by easing the path to GOP Senate majorities.
This week’s filibuster vote undermines checks and balances in the U.S. political system. With the rise of straight-ticket voting, Presidents are increasingly elected with congressional majorities. The limitations on what those majorities can do is rapidly attenuating, and if voters don’t send a contrary message, the result will be a combustible mix of greater polarization, partisan brinkmanship and heightened election stakes.