What makes this speech significant is that it happened on the Senate floor. What makes it more significant is that Durbin is the No. 2 guy in the Senate, the majority whip. That it is now the landing page of his Senate web page. It amounts to an announcement, a message to recalcitrant Democrats from their leadership that change is coming.
If you have any doubt of that, check out the unhinged histrionics and threats from Sen. Mitch McConnell Tuesday morning. “Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues: Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like. None of us have served one minute in a Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent,” he blustered. “This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change. It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a hundred-car pile-up. Nothing moving.” He’s worried. He’s also making promises he’ll have a hard time keeping, given he’s swearing to having all of his members available at every given moment of every day. That’s just not going to happen.
As if to emphasize Durbin’s point, though, that “Today, nearly 65 years after Strom Thurmond’s marathon defense of Jim Crow, the filibuster is still making a mockery of American democracy,” a group of Republican House members introduced a constitutional amendment to permanently strip the vote for president from residents of Washington, D.C. These aren’t outliers in the Republican Party—state lawmakers in 43 states have introduced 250 bills that would do largely the same thing to voters they think are predominantly Democratic. That’s what this is about, ultimately: Republicans preserving their anti-majoritarian rule no matter what.
So it might have been a mistake when McConnell tried to drag Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema into this fight on his side. Because his side is the white supremacists. At any rate, Durbin didn’t take his bluster too seriously. When asked about McConnell’s threats of “a completely scorched earth Senate,” Durbin replied: “He has already done that. He’s proven he can do it, and he will do it again.” So, basically, “Bring it, Mitch.”
Durbin previewed this fight with McConnell all the way back in September 2020, before the election handed the Senate to Democrats. “Last year in the Senate, 2019, we had 22 amendments voted on in the entire year,” he said on ABC’s This Week. “Mitch McConnell has taken the Senate and turned it into something that is not even close to a deliberative and legislative body—we need to make sure that whatever the procedure is in the future that we get down to business.” So McConnell isn’t brining anything Democrats weren’t already prepared for.
Fast forward to this week and what Durbin was potentially previewing on the floor Monday, which is the filibuster reform Manchin opened the door to earlier this month: a painful, talking filibuster. “If a senator insists on blocking the will of the Senate, he should at least pay the minimal price of being present,” Durbin said Monday. “No more phoning it in. if your principles are that important, stand up for them, speak your mind, hold the floor, and show your resolve.”
The way the current filibuster works is utterly painless for Republicans—they can literally phone it in. They raise an objection to a bill coming to the floor by unanimous consent, forcing a vote on proceeding to the bill. Senate rules (for now) set a 60-vote minimum for it to go forward. In Thurmond’s day, he had to take to the floor for more than 24 hours to try to achieve his goal. (He failed.) Now, after a series of “reforms” the filibuster has undergone over the decades, it’s become this. Until McConnell became Republican leader, it wasn’t so much of a problem.
Durbin might prefer a return to the talking filibuster, but he isn’t ruling anything out, on behalf of leadership. Among the suggestions he included are “reducing the number of votes needed to invoke cloture, creating a tiered system of voting in which the filibuster could be broken with successively smaller majorities, and ultimately a simple majority.” He is considering “any proposal that ends the misuse of a filibuster as a weapon of mass destruction.”
“It’s time to change the Senate rules, stop holding this senate hostage,” he concluded. “We cannot allow misuse of arcane rules to block the will of the American people. I urge my colleagues to defend democracy by making the changes needed.”