The debate over ending the filibuster, explained

As the U.S. Senate returns Tuesday to take up legislation on voting rights, there's one major roadblock for Democrats: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer doesn't have the votes to pass it in an evenly-divided chamber. That's led to renewed talk of reforming the Senate's filibuster rules. Lisa Desjardins speaks to two experts about the filibuster and the Democrats plan to change or end it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the Senate returns tomorrow to take up legislation voting rights, there is one major roadblock for Democrats.

    Majority Leader Chuck Schumer doesn't have the votes to pass it in an evenly divided chamber. That has led to renewed talk of reforming the Senate's rules.

    Lisa Desjardins picks it up from there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, it's called the filibuster, the right of senators to derail votes, in theory, with infinite debate. And it's why there is a 60-vote threshold for most Senate bills.

    Long speeches have always been part of the Senate, but requiring a supermajority vote to end them, that came in 1917. And it has defined the modern Senate. It has changed some, with a lower threshold and 161, at least, work-arounds in its first 100 years.

    Today, all 50 Senate Democrats agree on voting rights reforms, but they do not agree on whether to change the Senate's rules to pass them.

    For more on the debate over the filibuster, we turn to Adam Jentleson, the executive director of Battle Born Collective, a progressive communications firm, and former adviser to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Brian Darling, senior adviser to Navigators Global, a conservative communications firm, and former adviser to Republican Senator Rand Paul.

    Gentlemen, thank you.

    Let me just jump right into this important debate.

    Adam, why should the filibuster change?

    Adam Jentleson, Former Harry Reid Deputy Chief of Staff: Well, the filibuster, Lisa, as you said has changed a lot over the years.

    And in today's Senate, it has gone from what most Americans think of when they think of the filibuster, when they think of perhaps Jimmy Stewart standing on the Senate floor giving a long speech, into a more refined tool of obstruction that simply allows a minority of senators who may represent as little as a quarter of the population to block the majority from acting on centrist commonsense policies.

    So, if the filibuster ever served a useful purpose, it has mutated far beyond what the framers ever envisioned and become a tool purely for obstruction. And I think that's what you're seeing in the Senate today. And that is why it needs to either be reformed dramatically or gotten rid of altogether.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Brian, to Adam's point there, the filibuster, the supermajority, is not in the Constitution. Why should it stand?

    Brian Darling, Former Adviser to Senator Rand Paul: Well, the Senate serves a very important function.

    It's — it was created by our founders to represent the states. And we live in a republic, a democratic republic. And over the years, the Senate has had a tradition of extended debate. It's something called the filibuster. It serves to keep the Senate and its function as a deliberative body, a body that promotes independence and moderation and free speech.

    And, as you know, Democrats and Republicans have both shifted talking points on this. But I think that most people who have served in the Senate and respect the Senate love the idea of extended debate, like the idea of having senators have the opportunity to slow the whole process down and let the American people get involved in the legislative process.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Adam, what about Brian's point there that this preserves the Senate as a place of thoughtful, meaningful debate?

  • Adam Jentleson:

    I think that's a nice theory, but, in practice, that's not how it works at all.

    If anybody were to turn on C-SPAN 2 any day of the week or to go to the Senate, they would see that's not what happens. Nobody is ever on the Senate floor debating. Nobody is ever there having a thoughtful exchange of ideas. What you would see is an empty, paralyzed chamber. And that is because of the filibuster.

    If the filibuster ever did serve a useful purpose, it was to foster that kind of debate. And that's why I favor a return to the talking filibuster, the Jimmy Stewart-style filibuster, where senators are actually on the floor.

    But what the framers intended, to Brian's point about the Senate being a place to protect minority input, they did believe it should be a place to protect minority input, but they also believed that there was a careful balance decision between protecting minority input and allowing the minority to block the majority altogether.

    And they were very clear, in no uncertain terms, that they did not believe that a minority of senators should have the ability to block the majority. They thought the minority should be able to debate, have input, as Brian said, to bring the public into the discussion. And that could go on for days, weeks, even months sometimes.

    But when push came to shove, at the end of the day, the issue at hand was supposed to come up for a simple majority vote, as it did for 200 years in the Senate. And that's what the framers believed.

    What we have today is a Senate where the filibuster has tipped it from deliberation into dysfunction. And that's why we need to go back to the traditions of the past, where you have senators actually debating, instead of just allowing a minority of senators to block whatever the majority wants to do, with barely even raising a finger, and certainly never having to go to the Senate floor to debate the issue.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Brian, I want to get to that idea of how the Senate functions, which is really how government functions, and the filibuster.

    Let's look at a graphic over how the filibuster has been used. Measured by cloture votes, you can see that it's been — its use has really exploded in the past couple of decades. But, at that same time, so has partisanship. The increased use of the filibuster hasn't made people be more bipartisan.

    How do you answer that idea that the Senate is dysfunctional and that the filibuster as a political tool is part of it?

  • Brian Darling:

    Well, I think we all agree that there's dysfunction in the Senate. There's dysfunction in Congress as a whole. And I don't think changing the rules is going to solve that problem.

    You look at the Biden administration, they have actually passed significant legislation. They passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill. They passed a COVID relief package early in the Biden presidency. And they also hiked the debt limit.

    So they have passed significant pieces of legislation. They have extended funding for the government through a continuing resolution. So we can say that the Senate is broken, but I think the problem is that many want to put through legislation that's very controversial, it's highly partisan, like this voting reform bill.

    And that's something that even it doesn't appear that all Democrats are on board with changing the rules to do that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Brian, it seems like everyone here agrees that there's a problem in how Congress is working, that it's broken. I know you feel that way.

    But would you support something like a talking filibuster that Adam is talking about, some kind of reform?

  • Brian Darling:

    I think that, if senators were to take the floor and be forced to give speeches and hold the floor, I might support that.

    But I don't support it being done the way it's being done now. But it should be a bipartisan change. It shouldn't be done by throwing the rules out the window and claiming that they're unconstitutional.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Adam, one quick last question for you.

    Some Democrats are nervous, if you do this. Democrats will actually be harmed when Republicans, as often happens, Senate changes hands, Republicans takeover, that Democrats would regret this change.

  • Adam Jentleson:

    Given the history here, Mitch McConnell, when he was majority leader under President Trump, was very quick to do away with the filibuster to confirm Supreme Court nominees.

    So the first time it became an issue for him, he got — did away with it with a flick of his wrist. Mitch McConnell, some may also recall, also led the fight to end the filibuster under President George W. Bush in 2005.

    So, I think relying on Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to keep the filibuster in place when it no longer serves their advantage is not a smart strategy for Democrats.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Adam Jentleson, Brian Darling, a very important debate and good thoughts from both of you. Thank you.

  • Brian Darling:

    Thank you.

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