JUNE 9, 2021 by Gary Jones in Hong Kong
BY ELANA SCHOR
With help from Peter S. Canellos and Tyler Weyant
FORGET 2009 — It’s become fashionable in politics to compare 2021 to 2009, another year when an incoming Democratic president faced serious economic and public health challenges and struggled with how long to let bipartisan talks play out on his top domestic priority. But the more relevant year when it comes to President Joe Biden’s agenda is actually 2013.
Let’s journey back in time to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2013 decision to squash the filibuster for all executive-branch nominees except the Supreme Court. That monumental step set the stage for Mitch McConnell, Reid’s GOP successor as Senate leader, to end filibusters of Supreme Court nominees in 2017. Now progressives are pressuring current Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to deliver the final blow to the Senate’s 60-vote threshold by eliminating it for legislation.
But Reid made his move against the filibuster in the chill of November — and only after laying months upon months of groundwork. On July 16, 2013, dozens of senators in both parties spoke at a “highly unusual” confab “in the ornate old Senate chamber — where deals like the Missouri Compromise were struck nearly two centuries ago,” per our story in the POLITICO archives. Even then, Reid waited four more months to act. The three judicial nominees whose confirmations the GOP blocked, in what proved the last straw before Reid went nuclear, weren’t even tapped until the first week of June 2013.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid waits for the Senate subway after a vote in December 2013 on Capitol Hill. | Getty Images
Aspiring Senate prognosticators can take a few lessons from 2013: on timing, on stakes and on behavior.
First, if Schumer wants to follow Reid down the road to a rules change while commanding a majority five votes smaller than the Nevadan he once called a “foxhole buddy,” he’s going to have to wait longer to get enough buy-in. Reid acted about halfway through a 2013-2014 Congress that ended up seeing what was, at the time, the highest number of votes on cloture (a.k.a. filibuster cutoff) in the maneuver’s history: 218, surpassed only by the 298 such votes in the 2019-2020 session. The current Congress, by contrast, has seen only 43 cloture votes.
When it came to stakes, Reid also worked hard to build a case before putting his cuffs on the filibuster. He could point to multiple nominations that would have sailed through if not for GOP blockades. Schumer’s Democrats, on the other hand, have yet to win over their own colleague Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for their big-ticket elections measure, much less the Republicans. This year’s Democratic caucus has similar problems maintaining unity on other liberal legislation, from policing to labor organizing.
Which leaves the most important lesson that this year’s filibuster reformers can take from 2013 as they push Biden to take risks: Behavior matters when it comes to cajoling 50 Democratic caucus members to ditch a century-old tradition. Before Reid did his thing, which was also made possible by a strong 2012 campaign after which Democrats picked up two Senate seats, then-President Barack Obama used his bully pulpit to excoriate Republicans for throttling his priorities. Lately, though, you’ve heard Biden speak more sharply toward Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) than he does toward GOP senators.
And while White House allies have talked about their interest in learning lessons from Biden’s time in the Obama administration by not letting talks with the GOP drag on for too long, the president doesn’t seem eager to let go of bipartisan infrastructure talks just yet. Until we see a White House acting like it’s prepared to take drastic steps to curb the filibuster, Schumer has no room to act like a majority leader ready to go that far.
So until you see both Biden and Schumer acting a lot more like Obama and Reid did in 2013, on messaging as well as execution of raw political power, the legislative filibuster will remain alive and well – with more fans than just Manchin and Sinema, though they’re the only two Senate Democrats willing to say so out loud.
The Minister of Chaos
You might think that you know Boris Johnson. But the British prime minister can still be a difficult read, our staff writer Tom McTague argues in our latest magazine cover story.
“For three decades, we’ve followed his writing, his ambition, his outrages, his scandals,” Tom writes. “Yet the truth, for a professional Boris-watcher such as myself, is maddeningly elusive.”
In advance of this week’s G7 Summit, hosted by the U.K., we’re looking at three ways to try to understand Johnson, as explained by Tom:
1. He believes in the power of storytelling.
2. He’s relentlessly optimistic.
3. He likes mess.