SPEECH: Preserving the Senate Filibuster
Mr. President, I’ve come to the Floor to speak to the importance of protecting minority rights in the Senate, and to the consequences of weakening the legislative filibuster to a 50-vote, majority-serving threshold.
I’m here as perhaps the sole Senate Republican who will vote to begin debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, because I continue to support necessary improvements to our election laws through the regular order process. I’m also here as a senior member of this chamber, who has spent time in the majority and the minority. And I’m here because I care about legislating, and understand what it takes to work across the aisle to bring good policy into law.
With all of that in mind, I believe that weakening the current 60-vote threshold would be a major mistake, especially in light of the already-deep divisions within our country. The nuclear option that is reportedly coming our way – to change the threshold for cloture on legislation to 50 votes, with just 50 votes – will do nothing to cure what actually ails the Senate, and we should reject it.
Gutting the legislative filibuster would not bring our parties together; it will enable them to split further apart. It would not lead to better or consensus legislation; it will allow the majority to do what it wants, when it wants, without the minority. This rule change would not restore us as the world’s greatest deliberative body, but might very well obliterate that reputation forever.
We should remember that the Framers designed the Senate as an institution where the rights of individual Senators and minority groups of Senators are highly protected. That’s what our rules reflect. That’s why we can hold the floor; why we can register objections; why we can place holds and offer motions and filibuster legislation when we deem it necessary.
The Senate was never meant to be the House of Representatives. As Senator Robert Byrd, who served as both majority and minority leader, once put it, “The Senate is the proverbial saucer intended to cool the cup of coffee from the House.” We were meant to be deliberative. The more we become like the House, the less relevant we are as an institution, and the farther we will have strayed from the careful balance the Constitution envisions for our branch of government.
That’s why I signed a letter in 2017, along with 60 other members of this chamber, urging the Republican and Democratic leaders to preserve the 60-vote threshold for legislation. That’s why I opposed eliminating the filibuster when former President Trump pushed for that. And that’s why my advice to the majority today is to be careful what you wish for. This could help you advance your immediate agenda, but the long-term effects might look a lot different.
As we have this debate, we should be thinking about the practical effects of weakening the filibuster. What will happen, if it no longer protects the minority and instead serves the majority?
A 50-vote threshold would allow the majority to rush through legislation, without considering the minority, which was elected with support from major portions of the country.
It would reduce the need for the parties to work together, to reach broad consensus on policy that can endure across elections.
It would make primary elections into fealty tests, even more than they already are, as each party sets its sights on candidates who are unlikely to act independently once in office.
And, it would whipsaw the country on policy, undermining investment and our ability to address major challenges, as new majorities come in with the intention of reversing the work of their predecessors.
Those aren’t good outcomes for a divided nation, and they will only take us further from what should be our goal.
We should be focused on finding more ways to work together, as our bipartisan energy bill, our bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CARES Act, and many other measures have shown is possible when we try. As part of that, when we consider changing the rules, we should focus on incentivizing bipartisanship – pushing members to reach across the aisle – not making it less of a priority.
I will vote against any motion to weaken the filibuster or create carveouts within it. Legislating in the Senate is not supposed to be easy; it is deliberately hard. But I also have several suggestions for how we should move forward on voting rights legislation and potential changes to our rules
For voting rights, the Senate doesn’t need to change its rules—the majority needs to change its approach. You have me, and basically me alone, willing to debate one of the measures that was written on a partisan basis. I do want to reach a compromise on it, but would need significant changes before I vote for passage.
That makes it abundantly clear: we don’t have agreement on voting rights legislation. It’s no wonder this legislation is being blocked; partisan bills don’t suddenly become bipartisan once they hit the floor. So instead of looking for ways around consensus, we need to go back and actually build it.
Let’s take this back through the committee process. Look for areas of agreement, like reforming the Electoral Count Act. When something like that is put on the table, recognize it as one of the most important things we can do, in the wake of 2020, rather than dismissing it. Take the time – put in the effort – to build a product that can pass by a wide margin, as has been the case with most recent voting rights legislation.
For rule changes, I agree we should have the debate. But not like this. We need to have a thoughtful discussion. Both sides need to be involved. Any member who wants to participate should be able to do so.
Those discussions need to focus on the problem – that there is not enough consensus-building across parties – rather than eliminating the need for it altogether. Instead of targeting the filibuster, one step I would recommend is the development of a consensus calendar, through which strongly bipartisan bills can receive expedited consideration.
I would also argue that no rule changes should take effect this year. Whatever we can agree to, set the effective date as January 2023. Make these decisions based on what any majority, in any year, should have to govern. Change the rules because it is the right thing to do for the Senate, no matter who is in charge.
I recognize that filibusters are often frustrating, particularly for those who serve in the majority. Trust me, I’ve been there. It can be agonizing. It can feel like you’re up against a brick wall. Sometimes, like with my energy bill, it feels like you have had the rug pulled out from under you. But filibusters can help improve legislation. They force members who want to legislate to work together. They can be overcome. And in these partisan times, they prevent the majority from simply running over the minority, which would only worsen our political divide.
The 60-vote threshold for legislation requires consensus to be part of our legislative strategy. Changing it to 50 votes, to serve the narrowest possible majority, will lose that essential benefit and have lasting consequences for the Senate and for the people we serve.
Mr. President, we can do better than this. Better approaches for both voting rights legislation and rule changes are available to us. Neither side will get everything it wants out of them, but I am certain those bipartisan paths will better serve our nation, today and long into the future.