Fortunately, there’s a blueprint for exactly this sort of situation, one that both McConnell and Schumer themselves worked under 20 years ago: a power-sharing plan hammered out by Republican Trent Lott and Democrat Tom Daschle that addressed all of these outstanding issues. Committees, for instance, had equal numbers from both parties, and ties, which ordinarily would table legislation, would instead send bills to the floor. With then-Vice President Dick Cheney presiding over the chamber, Lott became majority leader and Republicans enjoyed the perks of running the Senate, but Democrats were accorded their proper due, and the body functioned normally.
To keep the Senate working properly now, today’s leaders need only edit a few words to that old agreement, and that’s precisely what Schumer has proposed. McConnell, however, has balked. He’s insisting that any new deal include a promise by Democrats not to disturb the filibuster—the hoary, invented requirement that legislation must receive 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, in order to pass.
Schumer has adamantly refused, and his entire party is behind him—even members who are generally supportive of the filibuster. They know that McConnell, who did not expect to find himself in the minority, is simply trying to find one more way to bind Democrats’ hands. They know the Daschle-Lott arrangement is the only reasonable and fair one, and they see no reason at all to accept anything less.
McConnell’s trying to do something else, too. A fight over the filibuster is coming, no matter what, but McConnell would prefer not to defend it when popular, necessary legislation is at stake—say, a new Voting Rights Act, or an expansion of health care. Instead, he’d rather wage this battle over an obscure procedural agreement—and box Democrats into reaffirming the GOP’s “right” to obstruct any part of Joe Biden’s agenda that it can.
It’s a clever move, on the surface, and one that looks like vintage McConnell, who’s won so frequently precisely because he’s so often found a way to fight on his preferred turf. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking.
Discussions of the filibuster inevitably orbit around Joe Manchin. The moderate West Virginia senator is not the only Democrat who opposes its elimination, but he’s the most vocal: Last summer, he called the idea, which would require the support of all 50 Democrats to move forward, “bullshit.” You might expect, therefore, that he’d readily accede to McConnell’s request and would pressure Schumer to do so.
Only he hasn’t. Just the opposite: Manchin expressed unequivocal support for Schumer’s refusal to cave. “Chuck has the right to do what he’s doing,” he said. “He has the right to use that to leverage in whatever he wants to do.” Why would Manchin, who in the very same remarks reaffirmed his belief in preserving the filibuster, stand up for Schumer’s rejection of McConnell’s demands?
It’s right there in his very words, twice over: He believes Schumer simply has certain rights as majority leader, a prerogative to run the chamber as he sees fit. And already, the absence of an agreement has undermined those prerogatives. The Senate is largely still operating under the arrangement that governed it for the last two years, meaning that the GOP still has majority on every committee and that, crucially, Republicans are still chairing those committees, even though Democrats ought to be.
That’s impacted Manchin personally, since he’s set to head up the National Resources Committee. Instead, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski remains in charge. But it’s not just personal with Manchin. It’s much more than that.
Manchin is what you might call an “institutionalist,” someone who—for better or worse—prioritizes maintaining the traditional operations of the Senate. And in this case, it’s Mitch McConnell who’s upended them, and is threatening to do even worse.
The 2001 power-sharing deal came into effect thanks to a vote at the start of every new Congress on what’s known as an “organizing resolution,” a measure that sets out how the Senate will run itself day-to-day. It includes provisions addressing matters like those discussed above about committee membership and tied votes, it’s almost always an uncontroversial affair. Even the Daschle-Lott agreement was adopted unanimously.
But McConnell could force a roll-call vote on the organizing resolution—and he could filibuster it. That is to say, Democrats would need 10 Republican votes to implement the new resolution, and McConnell could order his caucus to withhold them.
This, however, would be an extreme escalation, and probably an unprecedented one. It’s also extremely dangerous. By refusing to accept an eminently reasonable organizing resolution—identical in substance to one he supported two decades ago—in the service of trying to goad Democrats into pledging to keep the filibuster intact, McConnell might just push them to do the very opposite.
That is to say, by threatening to filibuster the organizing resolution, McConnell would be using abusive tactics to deprive Schumer of what Manchin firmly believes are his inalienable rights. Manchin may be unwilling to blow up the filibuster over substantive legislation, but if McConnell persists in acting like he’s still in charge and can dictate to Democrats, Manchin might call that bullshit and say, to hell with it—let’s get rid of the filibuster and pass a new resolution with just 51 votes.
Perhaps such a maneuver would be limited only to the organizing resolution, nominally retaining the filibuster on other matters. But the precedent would be a nightmarish one for McConnell, and the anger generated by his obstruction would be readily recalled the next time he tries to block a key Democratic priority, pushing the Senate ever-closer to outright elimination of its 60-vote requirement.
McConnell thinks he’s waging war on friendly territory, forcing Democrats to defend the possibility of ending the filibuster over a procedural vote that no ordinary American cares about. But Manchin is no ordinary American, and if McConnell tries to prevent Democrats from exerting their rightful authority as the majority party in the Senate, Manchin and his fellow travelers might just tell him to stuff it.