Democrats are set to take control of the Senate for the first time since 2015 following the victories of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s special elections on Tuesday.
The chamber will now face a 50-50 split with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties for at least the first two years of President-elect Joe Biden‘s administration.
However, a razor thin Democratic majority could still be hamstrung by Republican use of the filibuster. The filibuster is a method of delaying a vote on an issue that usually involves a senator speaking from the floor for a long period without breaks. A cloture vote of 60 senators is needed to prevent a filibuster.
Some GOP senators used this tactic when Barack Obama was president and there have already been calls overnight for Democrats to abolish it.
Social media users speculated about the chances of filibuster reform on Wednesday as it looked like Warnock and Ossof would win, with many pointing out it remained unlikely despite Democratic victories.
“[I]f the Dems win those two Georgia Senate seats, savor the moment of that operatic high because the part where they vote to keep the Senate filibuster will be an epic comedown,” wrote Jason Linkins, deputy editor of the New Republic.
His skepticism was shared by many others commenting on the Georgia results, including NBC national political reporter Sahil Kapur. He tweeted: “Anyone who thinks a hypothetical 50-50 Democratic-controlled Senate will pave the way for the end of the filibuster, expansion of the Supreme Court, Medicare For All and a Green New Deal needs to be reminded of the existence of Joe Manchin.”
Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, has long been seen as an obstacle to abolition of the filibuster. He’s publicly defended the procedure even as his colleagues have signaled openness to change.
“The whole premise of this Senate and this democracy experiment of ours is certain decency and social order that basically has been expected from us and especially from the Senate from the beginning of our government,” Manchin told CNN on September 27.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who’s on course to become the next Senate Majority Leader, said that “Nothing is off the table” with regard to the filibuster following Senator Mitch McConnell‘s (R-KY) decision to seat Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett during an election year, violating the precedent he set in 2016.
Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have also indicated varying degrees of support for abolishing the filibuster. Durbin may be in line to chair the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee
“The conversation about the future of the Senate rules is on the table, and I’m part of it,” Durbin told ABC on September 27. “The reason is this: we have seen under Mitch McConnell the destruction and the denigration of the United States Senate.”
Former Nevada Senator Harry Reid was the last Democrat to serve as Senate Majority Leader. A party grandee, he urged Biden to abolish the filibuster in “no more than three weeks.”
“Biden—who wants always to get along with people—I understand that,” Reid told the AP in October.
“We should give the Republicans a little bit of time, to see if they’re going to work with him,” he said. “But the time’s going to come when he’s going to have to move in and get rid of the filibuster.”
David Bateman is associate professor at Cornell University’s Department of Government. He believes it will be difficult for Democrats to abolish the filibuster even if they want to.
“The chances of filibuster reform are not great. After all, just one senator is needed to block reform—and Joe Manchin has made clear that he is opposed to filibuster reform. Unless he and the other more ‘centrist’ or conservative Democrats can be persuaded that an issue is sufficiently important enough to warrant jettisoning the filibuster, it is not going anywhere,” Bateman told Newsweek.
“More mainstream and even progressive Democrats also like the filibuster, since it provides individual senators with leverage that they might not otherwise have; but presumably they would be more willing to drop the filibuster if there were a sufficiently important issue.
“What does change is that the Democrats now have a real opportunity to use some of the procedural exceptions to the filibuster, most notably reconciliation. This ironically will make it tougher to find issues that conservative Democrats might find important enough to reform the filibuster, since a lot of issues important to them could be included in reconciliation bills. What we might see instead of filibuster reform is a push to expand what can be done through reconciliation.”
Biden’s public position on the filibuster has changed over time. Though he initially opposed abolition, he later suggested reform might be necessary depending on “how obstreperous” GOP senators become. Harris has also said she would eliminate the filibuster in order to pass the Green New Deal.
After Georgia Senate Victory, Will Democrats Kill the Filibuster? The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Newsweek.