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Democratic insiders set up a 'war room' to quickly kill the filibuster

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told NBC News ending the 60-vote rule "should be the first item of business" if Democrats sweep the 2020 races.
Mitch McConnell,Chuck Schumer
The Senate can “nuke” the filibuster with a simple majority vote, but it would set an irreversible precedent.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

WASHINGTON — Democratic insiders are assembling a coalition behind the scenes to wage an all-out war on the Senate filibuster in bullish anticipation of sweeping the 2020 election and passing an ambitious progressive agenda.

Veteran party operatives, activist groups and supportive senators are coordinating message and strategy to dial up the pressure to quickly end the 60-vote threshold early next year, fearing that preservation of the rule will enable Republicans to kill Joe Biden’s legislative agenda in its cradle.

They’re consolidating that effort under a coalition called Fix Our Senate run by Eli Zupnick, a former communications director for No. 3 Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Members include liberal groups like Indivisible, Communications Workers of America, Working Families Party, Brady Campaign, Demand Justice, Data for Progress, Evergreen Action, Stand Up America and Common Cause.

The advisory board features a raft of well-connected Democratic veterans with access to senators, like former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid’s deputy chiefs of staff Bill Dauster and Adam Jentleson, Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign manager Faiz Shakir, former Obama White House aide Dana Singiser and ex-CWA president and anti-filibuster crusader Larry Cohen.

“Our goal is to lift the filibuster higher on progressives’ agendas in advance of November and help them make it clear to a future President Biden and Senate leadership that they expect and demand speedy Senate rules reform in 2021 and will not accept more gridlock, delays and excuses,” Zupnick said. “We are going to be very focused on the need for speedy action.”

Zupnick said Fix Our Senate has hired “a war room” of research, communications and digital operatives with the mission of weakening support for the filibuster.

In an interview, Reid predicted that Democrats will sweep the presidency, Senate and House, and urged them to kick off the new era by scrapping the 60-vote rule.

"If President Biden wants to get things done, he can't play around with the filibuster,” Reid told NBC News, arguing that Americans will no longer accept a supermajority Senate threshold for action. “So I think that should be the first item of business with a Senate majority which is Democratic — to get rid of the filibuster.”

Members in the coalition have begun holding meetings and calls, including with outside groups and senators in order to strategize, make their case and draw new participants.

'No forgiving from Democratic voters'

Shakir said the message to senators is to expect Republicans to abuse the filibuster to stymie action: “There will be no forgiving from Democratic voters if they give you the opportunity to act and you fail and blame it on procedural snafus that no one understands.”

Inside the Senate, their biggest ally is Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who has been meeting with colleagues to make his case. He said voters don’t want a repeat of the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, where a series of Democratic priorities were scaled back or thwarted by then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in what he calls the “McConnell veto.”

“Having lived through that horror film, they're not ready to watch it again,” Merkley said. “And so I think our senators are going to be hearing about that.”

Another key ally for the coalition is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who elevated the cause of abolishing the filibuster in her 2020 presidential campaign.

The Senate can “nuke” the filibuster with a simple majority vote, but it would set an irreversible precedent. The idea of doing so was never entertained during Obama’s presidency, and it will be a heavy lift to stitch together the 50 votes necessary to do so.

But the cause received a boost over the summer when Obama torched the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic” that has been used to thwart progress on civil rights.

In late August, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called climate action "vital" for the country and the world — and kept the door open to eliminating the filibuster to pass it.

“Nothing's off the table,” he told reporters.

Ady Barkan, an influential progressive activist who is paralyzed by the terminal illness ALS and delivered a speech at the Democratic convention, said New York will hold Schumer accountable.

“This is a prediction, not a threat: I think that if Chuck Schumer doesn't end the filibuster and pass a transformative agenda in 2021, he will lose his primary election in 2022,” Barkan said in an email.

“His constituents have been waiting decades for immigration reform. New York City is on course to be drowned in the ocean. The pandemic has ravaged his state, in terms of lives and jobs. He has a profound moral obligation to address these crises immediately,” he said. “If he doesn't, I expect New Yorkers to elect someone who will.”

Don't do it, says McConnell

But centrist Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have said they want to preserve the filibuster. Convincing them and others from red or purple states, who are likely to hold the decisive votes, could be a daunting task. Several Democratic Senate candidates have signaled openness to the idea of changing the filibuster rule.

Biden, who has said in the past he doesn’t support eliminating the filibuster, opened the door to the idea slightly in July, telling a group of journalists it would “depend on how obstreperous” Republicans are.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., an institutionalist and a close ally of Biden, recently told NBC News he’s open to doing away with the filibuster if Republicans don’t cooperate.

Democrats have used the filibuster to thwart GOP bills under President Donald Trump — most recently a police reform measure and a narrow coronavirus aid package, both of which they called inadequate. The impact was modest, as both measures would have been dead on arrival back in the Democratic-controlled House.

Over the summer, McConnell warned his opponents to think twice before killing the 60-vote rule, calling on “responsible Democratic senators” not to be “stampeded by the hard left.”

“The important thing for our Democratic friends to remember is you may not be in total control in the future,” he told reporters. “And any time you start fiddling around with the rules of the Senate you always need to put yourself in the other fellow's shoes and just imagine what might happen when the winds shift."

But Merkley said he’s confident Schumer, if he’s majority leader, will do what’s necessary to deliver if good-faith bipartisan overtures fail.

“I think Sen. Schumer, like all of the Democratic senators, are determined that we're not going to allow a McConnell veto to stop us from acting on the things that America is depending on us to accomplish,” he said.