President Joe Biden hinted on Tuesday, October 5, that his party might go it alone in raising the debt ceiling after the Senate reached a legislative stalemate. With a choice between trying to force through his legacy spending package or averting the disaster of a potential debt default, the president appears to be trying to both have his cake and eat it courtesy of nuking the filibuster.
When asked by reporters if he would consider removing the filibuster just to increase the debt limit, Biden responded, “Oh, I think that’s a real possibility.” But is he opening a can of worms that can never be closed again?
The Ghost of Joe Biden Past
In the heady days of March 2021, when Joe Biden was still commanding a positive approval rating, he spoke with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on the subject of the filibuster. The president pontificated:
“I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster. You have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days … You had to stand up and command the floor; you had to keep talking.”
Stephanopoulos asked, “You’re for bringing back the talking filibuster?” To which the commander-in-chief replied, “I am. That’s what it was supposed to be. It’s getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning.”
And this perhaps gives an indication of how Biden might try and apply pressure to Republicans.
Present and Voting?
A number of options remain available to the president and Congress for dealing with the filibuster, each of which could apply serious pressure to Republican senators. The most easily implemented appears to be the “present and voting” strategy. This involves cloture on a bill being literally three-fifths of those senators present in the chamber during a vote – rather than the oft-applied 60 vote majority. In practice, this could mean holding sessions at odd hours in the hopes that opposition lawmakers would fail to attend.
Senators would have to make themselves available 24-hours a day to ensure they don’t miss a vote. It is a campaign of pressure and attrition that would be draining and dispiriting for the side that does not control the schedule. As Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) hinted earlier this year about blocking legislation, “Maybe it has to be more painful, maybe you have to make them stand there.”
Whether Democrats move to change the process of the filibuster could depend on resistance within their own ranks. While admitting that it should be harder to oppose majority legislation, Manchin has in the past been outspoken in his defense of the filibuster. But on Tuesday, when questioned on Biden’s comments, he said, “I’m not going to say anything about it.”
To effect the changes, Dems would require the support of all 50 of their senators. If even one crosses the aisle, the plan is dead in the water. This zero margin for error approach means that both Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema have a powerful hand to play.
A Roll of the Dice
Should President Biden tweak the filibuster enough to pass a new debt ceiling, it offers his $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” legacy spending a brighter opportunity for passage via reconciliation. But it is by no means guaranteed. When the Democrats no longer control both chambers – as is historically inevitable – this action will come back to haunt them. As the saying goes, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And good luck trying to claim the moral high ground when Republicans eventually trot out the same plan to force their own agenda.
~ Read more from Mark Angelides.