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Democrats confront a harsh political choice: Save the filibuster or pass Biden's agenda

The Republican "epiphany" he hoped for hasn't materialized. And many of his big plans are headed for a dead end in the Senate.
President Joe Biden leaves after speaking about the American Rescue Plan and the Paycheck Protection Program in Washington on Feb. 22.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is waking up to a haunting new reality that will test his determination to pass his legislative agenda, as progressives in the Democratic Party say prospects for bipartisanship are bleak and instead agitate to end Republicans' power to block bills.

Two packages are moving on parallel tracks this week: The Senate will take up Biden's coronavirus relief package as the House turns to a sweeping expansion of voting rights Wednesday.

But there's a vital difference between the two. The relief package isn't subject to the Senate filibuster, and it is likely to become law. The voting rights bill, like most of Biden's agenda, is on course for a fatal crash with the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

Democrats suffered their first major defeat due to the filibuster when an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour was dropped from the coronavirus relief package because it exceeded the limits of the simple-majority budget process.

Republicans say Biden is barely trying to work with them. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who isn't running for re-election, laughed when he was asked about cooperation with Biden, saying, "We're yet to see any reach-out on his part."

Democrats expect Biden to make a more concerted effort to find common ground with Republicans after the relief bill. But some say it's a fool's errand that will waste time they can't lose.

Progressives already warn that if Republicans uniformly reject a widely popular bill like the relief package, they are unlikely to supply 10 Senate votes to pass other parts of Biden's agenda.

"I want us to get rid of the filibuster because it is too costly to America," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told reporters Monday. "The piece in front of us right now is the minimum wage. The piece that's coming up is the Voting Rights Act. And the piece after that is immigration reform. And another piece is universal child care. The infrastructure package.

"If we want to deliver on our promises, we've got to be willing to get out there and fight for it. And that starts with getting rid of the filibuster," she said.

The coronavirus relief debate reveals a different landscape from the one Biden hoped for when he predicted a GOP "epiphany" that would liberate Republicans to work with him. Republicans appear to have little appetite for major parts of his agenda as they eye a strategy similar to the one they used in 2009 to win back power: unify against a Democratic president and portray him as too liberal.

Biden "said back in the campaign that his commitment to the filibuster depended on how 'obstreperous' McConnell is, which is little like saying your plans depend on if the sun will rise tomorrow," Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said in an email, referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Asked to comment, a White House official cited broad bipartisan support for many of Biden's nominees as an example of cooperation. In response to progressives' concerns, the official pointed to policies that are on track to pass in the coronavirus relief bill, including direct cash for raising children and larger subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

GOP 'headwinds' threaten Biden's agenda

Democrats don't have the 50 votes they need to end the filibuster, as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona say they want to preserve it. The two centrists argue that the 60-vote rule promotes bipartisan cooperation. Their commitment to the 60-vote threshold will be tested if it ends up doing the opposite and creates gridlock.

How Biden handles the dispute could define his presidency — and his party's political future. Some Democrats want him use his clout to persuade the holdouts. A congressional aide said moderate Democrats have privately joked that whatever Biden supports becomes the reasonable position in the party.

Many Republicans sounded pessimistic this week when asked whether Biden's agenda has a future; some of them blamed his decision to pass coronavirus aid without them.

"It certainly creates some headwinds for whatever his agenda might hold moving forward," said Todd Young of Indiana, one of 10 Republican senators who met with Biden to discuss coronavirus aid for two hours. "It undermines trust. And trust is what enables us to come together, find common ground."

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who isn't seeking re-election and is free of political pressures, said the $1.9 trillion package "does poison the well" for future cooperation.

Pfeiffer said that while some parts of Biden's agenda can bypass or overcome filibusters, voting rights measures can't — and failure would be devastating for the Democratic Party.

"Democrats cannot pass voting rights legislation with the filibuster in place and if Democrats do not pass voting rights legislation they are making a generational mistake that could doom them to the minority for a decade," Pfeiffer said by email.

H.R. 1 would bolster the Voting Rights Act, guarantee 15 days of early voting and ensure universal access to mail-in voting, among other policies. The White House formally endorsed it this week, casting it as a necessary solution to combat an "unprecedented assault on our democracy."

For now, Senate supporters of the filibuster aren't backing down.

"Never!" Manchin shouted Monday when a reporter asked whether he's open to changing his mind.

Both parties have invoked the so-called nuclear option in recent years to change filibuster rules: Democrats in 2013 to scrap it for most nominations and Republicans in 2017 to eliminate it for Supreme Court picks.

Manchin is the only senator who opposed both changes.

Sinema, who became a senator in 2019, said in a letter to a constituent that preserving the filibuster "is not meant to impede the things we want to get done."

"I support the 60-vote threshold for all Senate actions," Sinema wrote in the letter, which was dated Feb. 12 and obtained by NBC News. "Debate on bills should be a bipartisan process that takes into account the views of all Americans, not just those of one political party. Regardless of the party in control of the Senate, respecting the opinions of senators from the minority party will result in better, commonsense legislation."