Senate Democrats’ Filibuster Hypocrisy


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 22, 2021. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
In 2017, most Senate Democrats signed a letter supporting the filibuster. Their explanations for flip-flopping don’t withstand scrutiny.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLEOn Tuesday, Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block legislation for the third time during the 117th Congress. As the motion to proceed to debate S. 1, a bill to federalize elections, failed on a 50–50 party-line vote, many Senate Democrats renewed their calls to scrap the 60-vote threshold required for most legislation.

Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should go ahead and hold a vote to eliminate the 60-vote rule even though he doesn’t have the votes to pass it.

“I would vote in favor of debating it, and then I’d vote in favor of abolishing the filibuster,” Blumenthal told National Review. “In 2011, I think it was one of my very first votes . . . was to abolish the filibuster.”

Consistency on the filibuster makes Blumenthal somewhat unusual inside the Democratic caucus.

In April of 2017, 61 senators signed a letter urging the Senate leadership to preserve the 60-vote rule for legislation. “We are writing to urge you to support our efforts to preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions as they pertain to the right of Members to engage in extended debate on legislation before the United States Senate,” the 61 senators wrote to then-Majority Leader McConnell and then-Minority Leader Schumer.


Thirty-one of the 61 signatories were Democrats, but most of those Democrats now support getting rid of the filibuster.

In the Senate this week, National Review asked several filibuster flip-floppers why they changed their positions. None of the explanations made much sense.

Democratic senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a signatory of the pro-filibuster letter, said Donald Trump changed his view. “I would say Donald Trump and a complete takeover of the Republican Party by right-wing ideology that is making it impossible for us to work on the biggest issues that are confronting our country,” Markey told National Review.

Markey, of course, signed a letter in support of the filibuster three months into Donald Trump’s term as president.

Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, another signatory of the 2017 pro-filibuster letter, told NR she changed her view because of the “reality” that “we never really got to use the filibuster for the last four years that Mitch McConell ran the Senate.”

In fact, Democrats used it on multiple occasions. In 2020 alone, Senate Democrats used the filibuster to block legislation on COVID relief, police reform, banning most abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy, and protecting infants who survived attempted abortions. Other bills that were sure to be filibustered never made it to the floor.

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the “relentless, unending, determined, unbreakable Republican obstruction” changed his view on the filibuster. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said: “We never saw the kind of obstruction we’ve seen.”

But the Senate made it all the way until the May 28 vote on the January 6 commission without a filibuster, and that remains the only bill that had the support of a majority of senators that was killed by the filibuster. S. 1 failed on a 50–50 tie, and the motion to advance the Paycheck Fairness Act only got 49 Democratic votes due to the absence of one Democratic senator.

Virginia senator Tim Kaine said he flipped on the filibuster because of January 6: Right now, he only supports a carve-out from the 60-vote rule for voting rights, and he hasn’t said whether he wants to eliminate it for all legislation. “On voting rights, January 6 changed my views [on the filibuster],” Kaine said. “You would think, the Capitol under attack, Congress would want to engage in some self-defense, but if one party doesn’t want to, we’re the ones that have to. The burden of history is on our shoulders, at a minimum, to protect people’s rights to vote.”

Kaine’s explanation for flipping has more surface-level plausibility than explanations of his colleagues, but dig an inch deep, and you are reminded that S. 1 doesn’t actually do anything to address Electoral Count Act, the 1887 law under which electoral votes may be rejected by Congress.

Kaine’s position on the filibuster has been situational in the past: He supported nuking the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2016 when it looked like Democrats were going to take the White House and then claimed in 2017 Democrats would have allowed a Senate GOP minority to indefinitely block a Supreme Court nominee when he filibustered the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Political hypocrisy, especially on matters of process, is not shocking inside the Capitol. But it is remarkable that the general tone of mainstream-media coverage has been to put pressure on Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — the two senators keeping their pledges to voters about keeping the filibuster — rather than the many senators who have flip-flopped for reasons of political expediency.