Some Democrats are reading Schumer’s pledge to let nothing stand in the way of the Democratic agenda as a sign that he’s open to changing the filibuster: “I think it’s going to mean we’re going to have to go and do filibuster reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
Hirono is among the growing number of Democrats calling to nuke the filibuster, but several other senators aren’t there yet. The pro-reform camp isn’t letting the issue drop, though: One Democratic senator said the topic comes up in “one of out of every three conversations up on the floor,” adding that colleagues are using the caucus’ private email chain to push for a full 50-member discussion about it.
While Schumer isn’t showing his hand, he told progressive groups last week that he plans to bring the voting rights bill to the floor and expects Republicans to block it, according to a source on that call. He said he would then bring the issue to his caucus and try to find a solution.
Schumer is also encouraging progressive and pro-democracy groups to exert external pressure for passing the voting bill.
The majority leader plans to hold additional votes on other bills that will demonstrate the breadth of GOP opposition. But if Schumer’s goal is changing Manchin’s mind, “it’s an ill-conceived strategy,” said a second Senate Democrat.
“Bluntly, these bills don’t have 50 votes,” the senator said. “Eventually some guy named Joe from West Virginia is going to get sick of, week after week, being pilloried as the barrier for progress. And then the question is: What does he do? He’s a pretty stubborn guy.”
Manchin said in an interview that he hasn’t had a single specific conversation with Schumer about the filibuster and has “no idea” what his leader personally wants. He added that Schumer hasn’t tried to lobby him to change his mind.
“We’ve had a good enough relationship. I’m sure I frustrate him at times. But the bottom line is, he’s very respectful,” Manchin said. “He’d like to be able to do what he wants to do. And I say: ‘Chuck, then go through the regular process. Let’s try the process before we even talk about anything else.’”
At the moment, the process is moving and will soon test if there’s any bipartisan will in the Senate to work on Biden’s agenda. A bipartisan group of 20 senators is trying to prove the chamber can function, a smaller group is focusing on immigration, and a third group of Democratic senators is trying to come to an agreement on raising the minimum wage.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that before having a conversation about the filibuster, Democrats should first decide on legislation that can receive support from the entire caucus, and then reach out to Republicans. Among the issues that don’t have caucus unanimity are minimum wage, voting rights and background checks for gun buyers.
“If you can get 50 out of 50 votes, because of who our caucus is, it’s going to be pretty reasonable,” Kaine said. “But if on those things that are reasonable and popular we can’t get Republican votes, then you have to have the discussion about filibuster reform.”
Although Schumer has managed to keep his caucus together so far on tough votes, he tends to defer to his members when they have an internal dispute. Last year, when then-Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) battled Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) over the Judiciary Committee gavel, Schumer declined to take sides and instead left it up to senators to vote on the issue in a secret ballot.
Republicans tried to pressure Schumer on the filibuster at the start of the Congress, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called for him to commit to keeping the 60-vote threshold as part of the organizing resolution for the 50-50 Senate. But Democrats rejected that proposal, and McConnell agreed to move forward, but only after both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) publicly restated their support for preserving 60 votes for passage of most bills.
Still, Republicans remain suspicious of the new majority leader. They say he’s ruthless and if he can kill the filibuster, he will.
“He’s predisposed to grab power when he can. He wants you to work with him when we’re in power and keep the Senate stable,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has teamed up with Schumer on immigration.
“And when he’s in power,” Graham continued, “he becomes a pretty disruptive force.”