While congressional Democrats hope to make dramatic changes to a controversial legislative tool that has stalled bills in the Senate and could be used to frustrate Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda, Republicans are mounting an all-out defense to protect it.
Conservative outside groups have been organizing overtly and covertly to counter Democratic pressure to gut the filibuster – a Senate device that in effect allows the minority party to halt proposed legislation.
While Democrats have been struggling to unite members of their Senate caucus, especially the more centrist holdouts, to get rid of the filibuster, their Republican counterparts have been lockstep in opposing changes.
Meanwhile, Republican outside groups have churned out polling, aired ads, organized gatherings and released statements warning of the long-term consequences of changing the rule. It is a concerted program that Republicans see as vital to preserving their power in the Biden era, while Democrats see it as a potential threat to their attempts to bring in meaningful legislation.
The cause has reunited Republicans after the divisiveness of the Trump era – bringing together business interests, Trumpist politicians and their anti-Trump opponents in the party, as well traditional big donors to conservative causes.
For Republicans involved in the fight, the campaign to preserve the filibuster is a historically important one. “The filibuster really serves as that backstop against heat-of-the-moment politics,” said Garrett Bess, vice-president for government relations for Heritage Action for America, a non-profit group aligned with the conservative Heritage Foundation thinktank.
Bess said his group sought to ensure “that people understand what is on the other side of changing the filibuster. So when we’re talking to a conservative audience or a right-of-center audience, on the other side of the filibuster is higher taxes and gun control and taxpayer-funded abortion. Those kinds of things.”
In front of a more moderate audience, Bess said, the argument is to warn about statehood for Washington DC or Democrats’ voting rights package.
Bess said Heritage Action had focused on talking with “constituencies of Democratic senators in which we have a very large footprint – Arizona, Georgia, West Virginia” and was expanding into New Hampshire, Bess said.
In late April, One Nation, an outside group aligned with Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican Senate minority leader, released polling from Arizona and New Hampshire, Nevada and West Virginia to argue against filibuster reform. Arizona and West Virginia are the two states with the most conservative Democrats in the caucus. The polling found that voters were largely unaware of the filibuster and when they were made aware “in fairly neutral terms, support for keeping the filibuster is solid”.
“On the filibuster, voters are much more aligned with the position and statements of Senator Kyrsten Sinema than they are with the position and statements of Senator Mark Kelly,” the One Nation polling memo said. Sinema has expressed stubborn opposition to changing the filibuster while Kelly has expressed openness to some kind of reform.
The fact that one of the primary McConnell-aligned groups published those results underscores congressional Republicans’ position on the filibuster. McConnell has warned about longer-term consequences of filibuster reform and has argued it would change change the Senate to a “scorched-earth” body.
“Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues: nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin, to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” the top Republican said in March.
Heritage Action and 28 other groups published a letter in January urging every member of the Senate to oppose filibuster reform.
“The legislative filibuster is an essential part of ensuring a strong system of checks and balances,” the letter read. “While we typically do not weigh in on Congressional procedure, we believe elimination of the filibuster could result in a slew of destructive policy changes.”
Manchin and Sinema are favorite targets for conservatives looking to fight support for filibuster reform. Americans for Prosperity, another outside group, funded by Charles Koch, has launched a six-figure ad campaign focused on those two senators.
Similarly, Ken Cuccinelli, a former official in the Department of Homeland Security during Donald Trump’s presidency and a former attorney general of Virginia, is leading a conservative group that has encouraged Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to oppose filibuster reform.
Even the US Chamber of Commerce, which at times has worked with Joe Biden’s administration and endorsed a set of congressional Democrats, has voiced opposition to filibuster reform. Suzanne Clark, the president and CEO of the chamber, tweeted the group’s statement.
Whether the filibuster will be dramatically altered depends on Democrats. No Republican senator has expressed support for it – and at this point, there are not enough Democratic votes to change it.
Democrats who do not usually weigh in on Senate procedure or legislating have begun to argue for reform, however.
And more than 350 prominent historians published a letter arguing for getting rid of the filibuster.
“Only in recent decades have filibusters effectively created a regular supermajority threshold for routine legislation, with prior norms of restraint all but disappearing,” the letter, first reported by Talking Points Memo, said.
Fix Our Senate, an alliance of about 70 groups that aims to get rid of the filibuster, has launched a six-figure ad buy urging Democrats to gut the mechanism. The group will also be holding a town hall with senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to argue for its elimination.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Republican leaders and their special interest allies are pulling out all the stops to protect the filibuster as the best weapon they have to block President Biden’s agenda and prevent Democrats from delivering on their promises,” Eli Zupnik, a Fix Our Senate spokesman, said in a statement. “But voters across the country are learning more about this ‘Jim Crow relic’ and will see through these desperate attempts by Senate Republicans to maintain power from the minority.”