From former President Barack Obama to Gov. Jay Inslee, many prominent Democrats have called for ending the Senate filibuster if the party retakes a majority this fall.
Some Democrats also want to expand the Supreme Court in retaliation for Republicans blockading Obama’s court nominee, Merrick Garland, for eight months in 2016 — while planning to confirm President Trump’s pick, Amy Coney Barrett, just weeks before the election.
But U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the third-ranking Senate Democrat now serving her fifth term, isn’t ready to endorse major shifts, even as she vows to fight Barrett’s confirmation.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Washington’s senior senator did not rule out changes to the filibuster or court, but said she’s working for a decisive outcome in the Nov. 3 election — hoping it could jar Republicans into a cooperative stance.
“If Democrats win in a lot of these races that Republicans never thought would be a race, they may be more willing to look at themselves and say … ‘we should work with people on the other side and get things done,’ “ Murray said.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell also has taken no public position on the filibuster or court expansion. Like Murray, she voted against Barrett’s confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 2017, citing concerns about her judicial philosophy.
Critics of the filibuster, a longstanding Senate rule which allows a minority of senators to block legislation, say it’s an anachronism that will stymie a Democratic agenda that includes sweeping action on climate change, voting rights and health care.
The rule requires 60 of 100 senators to end debate on a bill and move to a final vote. That threshold deepens the Senate’s already anti-majoritarian structure, which gives sparsely populated states outsized influence.
In recent years, partisan rancor has led both parties to chip away at the filibuster when it comes to confirming presidential nominees.
In 2013, Democrats, then in the majority, voted to change Senate rules to require a simple majority to move ahead on confirmations for most executive-office and judicial appointments, with the exception of U.S. Supreme Court nominees. In 2017, Republicans did the same for Supreme Court picks, after Democrats filibustered court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
A Democratic assault on the filibuster for all legislation “would make the nomination fights look like child’s play,” warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in a New York Times op-ed last year.
“The legislative filibuster is directly downstream from our founding tradition. If that tradition frustrates the whims of those on the far left, it is their half-baked proposals and not the centuries-old wisdom that need retooling,” McConnell wrote.
But there has been growing pressure on Democrats to scuttle the legislative roadblock.
The movement gained more momentum this summer when Obama endorsed abolishing the filibuster if it stands in the way of voting-rights reforms, calling the rule “a Jim Crow relic.” Inslee also came out against the filibuster during his failed run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, terming it “an artifact of a bygone era.”
Murray’s former communications director, Eli Zupnick, is a spokesman for Fix Our Senate, a coalition of progressive groups dedicated to killing the filibuster, which the group says has been “weaponized” by McConnell “to allow a partisan minority to block overwhelmingly popular legislation.”
While Murray has not joined other senators, including Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, in the cause, she signaled openness to the idea if Republicans lose a majority but repeatedly filibuster Democratic legislation next year. She told the Los Angeles Times recently she’s “not interested in watching Sen. McConnell or Senate Republicans keep us from acting if we have the chance.”
In the Seattle Times interview, Murray emphasized the best and most durable legislation has been crafted with support from both parties.
“I’m as frustrated as anybody that this Republican majority today and this administration haven’t done that,” she said. “But having said that, no, I have not taken a position on the filibuster, and I know there are a lot of people asking.”
Murray touted her efforts to reclaim the Senate majority, which would put her in line to become chair of the influential Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.
Using her political email list, she has launched a “Sprint to 2020” program which has raised $460,000 for Democrats in key Senate races from nearly 30,000 contributors, according to a campaign spokeswoman.
All the talk of scrapping the filibuster will be moot if Democrats fail to retake the Senate and White House, or lose their House majority, one expert has pointed out.
“Under divided party government, a Senate majority gains little from banning the filibuster if the House or president of the other party will just block a bill’s progress,” wrote Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an analysis on the nonpartisan think tank’s web site.