That is unless Democrats find a way to end the Senate filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes (or 10 Republican votes) to pass much of Biden’s agenda.
Consider these examples: A pair of voting reform bills that passed the House? Dead in the Senate because of the filibuster. Immigration reform? Dead. Police reform? Probably dead if it includes changes to a legal rule that prevents police from being sued. Efforts around pay equity for women? Dead. Taxpayer-funded abortion? Dead. Big actions on student loan debt? Dead. Efforts to curb climate change? Dead. Gun control? Dead. And it appears that infrastructure reform is also dead as long as Senator Joe Manchin wants it done with 60 votes, something that is extremely unlikely to happen in the proposal’s current form.
When Biden returns to Washington expect a lot of conversation about whether Democrats should change the rules, end the filibuster, and require a simple majority for items to pass the Senate.
When cable news and your Facebook feed go all out on discussing the arcane details, here are four things to keep in mind.
1. The filibuster is a huge political tool for Republicans
Yes, in theory, the filibuster should be a process that can ensure parties work together, and guarantees the minority party has some say in legislation. And, yes, Democrats have used the filibuster to block all kinds of Republican legislation. In practice, however, Republican voters are disproportionately helped by the fact the filibuster exists.
As part of a series of compromises hammered out by the framers to balance the interests of small and large states, the House of Representatives is set up to give greater power to bigger states, which are handed more representatives according to their population. The Senate, meanwhile, is dominated by rural, smaller states because all states are given equal representation. So, North Dakota gets as many senators as California.
The issue today is that the urban-rural divide is increasingly the main dividing point in American politics, and more people are moving to urban areas. The proportion in the Senate is off. As long as rural areas skew Republican, and rural states dominate the US Senate, then Republican voters are always disproportionately represented in the Senate. The fact that it skews this way so heavily right now is sparking some discussion about Senate rules.
2. As it stands today, only certain things are filibustered
In practice, only 51 of 100 votes are needed to pass items relating to the budget (including whether to raise or lower taxes). A simple majority is also all that is required to confirm federal judges or presidential nominees like cabinet members.
So basically the bills that don’t fall into those categories are largely the cultural battlefield items, where again, the rural areas have a structural advantage in the Senate.
3. The filibuster does create lasting legislation
Recently, when a new president is sworn in he heads back to the White House to sign new executive orders, many of which basically undo the executive orders of his predecessor. It creates a ping-pong effect in governing.
If the Senate filibuster does anything, it prevents different Senates from taking considerable time working to simply undo what a previous Senate has just done. After all, 60 votes are needed to pass anything and that means successful legislation often has bipartisan buy-in. That makes it harder to get rid of the law down the line.
4. Democrats don’t have the votes to end the filibuster right now even if they wanted to
It’s simply inaccurate to suggest that Democrats could end the filibuster right now if they had the political will. It would take at least 50 votes along with Vice President Harris to end the filibuster. As it stands, there are only 47 Democratic votes, given that Manchin, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein have not signed onto the idea. And so far neither has Biden, who would probably need to sign off on how Harris votes should the other three Senators come on board.