Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) said on Thursday that she will not help her party to weaken or abolish the filibuster, all but ending President Joe Biden’s aspiration to pass comprehensive voting legislation that would increase the federal government’s power over elections.
This announcement comes as little surprise to observers of the Arizona maverick who, like former Sen. John McCain, has long been willing to break with her party on various issues. On the filibuster especially, Sinema opposes efforts by her party to change the peculiar Senate rule.
“There’s no need for me to restate my longstanding support for the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation. There’s no need for me to restate its role in protecting our country from wild reversals of federal policy,” Sinema said on Thursday.
The announcement, though unsurprising, is a hard blow to President Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders.
On Twitter on Jan. 3, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made clear that voting legislation would be one of the top priorities for Democrats returning from their winter recess.
Schumer and others in his party have maintained that efforts by Republican legislatures across the United States to strengthen their election laws through stricter voter ID, absentee ballot rules, and other measures constitute a “new Jim Crow” that demands immediate congressional action.
“We can and must take strong action to stop this anti-democratic march,” Schumer wrote in the tweet.
Around a week after this tweet, Biden made clear that he stood behind Schumer’s goal.
“To protect our democracy,” Biden told a mostly-black crowd in Georgia. “I support changing the Senate rules in whatever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”
“The filibuster’s not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart,” Biden said later during the speech.
This announcement represented a significant change of course for the former senator, who during the late summer and early fall of 2021 still opposed efforts to weaken the filibuster.
Democrats have made several efforts to pass various pieces of election legislation that would effectively put the federal government in charge of elections across the United States. However, these bills have all faced stiff resistance from GOP senators and, in one case, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.).
Because of the Senate’s filibuster rule, practically any election legislation that the House could send to the Senate would need the support of at least 60 senators, including 10 GOP senators, to open debate on the measure and allow it to go to a simple majority floor vote.
To get around this Senate rule, which has been a mainstay in the Senate for decades, Schumer, Biden, and other Democrats have formulated a new strategy: Change the Senate’s rules completely to make the deliberative chamber into a smaller version of the House, where simple majority votes are the standard.
Technically, they could do this. Using the so-called “nuclear option,” the majority party can change Senate rules by a simple majority vote.
However, this is a course that many legislators have been hesitant to use in the past: While it does indeed allow the majority party to pass partisan legislation, this course can come back to hurt the party when they lose the majority, who will be equally empowered to pass partisan legislation.
Since returning from their recess, this effort has been the main focus for Democratic leadership and rank-and-file members in the Senate. But according to Sinema, this all-or-nothing push obfuscates the larger debate over the value of the filibuster.
“This week’s harried discussions about Senate rules are but a poor substitute for what I believe could have and should have been a thoughtful public debate at any time over the past year,” Sinema said.
This is not the first time that Sinema has expressed her opposition to weakening the filibuster. Democrats had the same debate during the summer of 2021, and in that debate Sinema squarely opposed the radical changes being proposed by her party. In an appearance on “The View,” Sinema defended her position, calling the filibuster “a tool … for the protection of the minority.”
And Sinema is not the only opponent of the proposal.
Manchin, an ally of Sinema, has vowed in no uncertain terms that he will not weaken the filibuster, and this is a position he has not deviated from since the beginning of the 117th Congress.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has also expressed opposition to changing the filibuster to pass voting legislation in the past, though it is unclear whether she continues to hold to this position as she has been far less outspoken than Sinema and Manchin.
Still, Sinema’s announcement represents another defeat for Biden, whose $1.85 trillion “Build Back Better” Act was effectively killed by Manchin’s opposition. Without the full support of his party in the Senate, Biden’s aspirations to change the filibuster are practically dead on arrival.