Liberals Should Want to Save the Filibuster

Be careful what you wish for. Pres. Joe Biden, who has resisted calls from progressives to eliminate the Senate filibuster, said yesterday that he would make an exception for a bill that would codify Roe and reestablish abortion as a national right.

His statement is mostly symbolic. He said the same thing about his voting rights bill and nothing happened because at least two Democratic senators won’t support ending the rule that essentially requires 60 votes to pass any bill. (Court appointments can be approved on simple majority votes.)

Liberals think that if only the filibuster was history they could make history by assuring abortion rights, passing voting rights, Build Back Better, climate legislation and more. That’s probably not the case as they would still need Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to stick with them on those issues and there’s no assurance that they would.

Jimmy Stewart used the filibuster to good effect in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It might be useful again when Republicans take back the Senate.

But here’s the bigger threat. Rather than codifying Roe, it’s more likely that ending the filibuster will mean a national law outlawing abortion everywhere. The ink wasn’t dry on the Dobbs decision before anti-abortion activists started talking about such a national ban, and it grows more likely each day that Republicans will take back the Senate this November. If they can pass a national anti-abortion law with a simple majority they may very well do just that. For now Biden is there to veto it, but what happens if there’s a Republican president to match a Republican senate in 2025? Liberals may be cursing the day they made it easier to pass legislation.

Look, I’ve flipped on this issue twice now. I used to be against eliminating the filibuster because I thought it was good that the Senate acted as a break on the most extreme legislation in any direction. Then I changed my mind because it seemed to me that, on balance, the practice was doing more harm than good as important and popular legislation could be held hostage to a stubborn minority that had no interest in governing. I also felt that, once the filibuster was removed for federal court appointees — including lifetime appointments to the highest court in the land — there wasn’t much point in preserving it for legislation.

But now, faced with the very real threat that Republicans will take the Senate in the fall and the White House in two years and then be pressured by anti-abortion forces to ban all abortions everywhere, I’ve rethought my position again.

It’s very unlikely the filibuster could be eliminated in any event given opposition from Manchin and Sinema. But maybe progressives should thank them for that.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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