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For Democrats, GOP filibuster of Jan. 6 commission tests 'limits of bipartisanship'

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is planning a series of votes soon on equal pay, voting rights and other bills that will shape the fate of the 60-vote threshold.
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WASHINGTON — A Republican filibuster Friday of an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol sparked outrage among Senate Democrats ranging from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to centrist West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

It was the first bill to die by a minority filibuster in the era of President Joe Biden, which carries warning signs for the rest of his agenda in the Senate, where Democrats are in charge but need 10 Republicans to move most legislation under the existing rules.

Democrats have the power to change those rules but lack the unanimity it would require of the 50-member caucus. And when the Senate returns from a weeklong Memorial Day recess, Schumer appears ready to test his members.

He promised votes on the Paycheck Fairness Act and a bill to protect voting rights — both have viable paths to a majority vote but not 60 to defeat a filibuster. He said LGBTQ rights and gun legislation may also come up.

“We have seen the limits of bipartisanship and the resurgence of Republican obstructionism,” Schumer told reporters after the Jan. 6 commission vote, which won 54 senators. Six Republicans crossed the aisle.

When it comes to changing filibuster rules, the New York Democrat said “everything is on the table.”

“I think the events of the last few days probably made every member of our caucus realize that a lot of our Republican colleagues are not willing to work with us on a whole lot of issues, even issues where we try to be bipartisan,” Schumer said.

Of course, it isn’t just up to the majority leader. Two vocal proponents of the 60-vote threshold, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., won’t be easily persuaded.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is testing their limits.

Among Democrats, the debate over the filibuster is about whether it promotes bipartisanship or hinders necessary action.

McConnell, who was under pressure from former President Donald Trump, successfully pushed his caucus to filibuster the Jan. 6 commission legislation. The Kentucky Republican feared it would be used against his party politically in the 2022 midterm elections because it was Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol.

Though McConnell didn’t speak publicly Friday, he argued that Democrats would use the commission as a vehicle to “litigate the former president into the future,” while Republicans believe voters “in fall of 2022 ought to focus on what this administration is doing to the country.”

As senators voted Friday, Manchin and McConnell exchanged words on the Senate floor.

“This is not, to me, a political disagreement,” Manchin told reporters afterward. “He doesn't see it that way. He sees it strictly as politics, no matter what — everything’s politics. And I said, I'm sorry, I just disagree. And he knows that.”

In a statement, Manchin called the commission filibuster “unconscionable” after Democrats “accepted the proposed changes from Republicans” on how to structure a commission.

'It's just not possible'

Several Republicans disagreed with McConnell.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., one of the defectors, argued that blocking the bill wouldn’t stop a Jan. 6 probe — it would merely enable House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do it without giving the GOP equal representation on the panel.

“Without this commission, there will still be an investigation,” Cassidy said. “But it will be a House select committee set up by Speaker Pelosi — the nature of which will be entirely dictated by Democrats and would stretch on for years.”

But a Democratic-led probe would lack the added legitimacy that a bipartisan investigation might have conferred in the eyes of GOP voters. McConnell’s filibuster keeps him out of Trump’s line of fire in the event that a GOP-backed commission were to uncover unflattering facts about the former president or his supporters.

For Democrats, it raises a haunting question: If the two parties can’t even agree to inquire about a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol that endangered their lives, what hope is there for bipartisanship on ideologically contentious issues?

“This is just the final nail in the coffin of the Republicans completely selling their soul to Donald Trump and his perceived base,” said Jim Messina, a former campaign manager and White House aide for ex-President Barack Obama.

Messina urged Biden not to repeat Obama’s mistake by relying on GOP cooperation for his agenda. On Capitol Hill, many Democrats share his viewpoint, but not all of them.

“That’s the preferred way to go,” Schumer said of two-party cooperation. “It’s just not possible in many different areas with this Republican Senate.” In the near-term, he said using a special budget process to pass infrastructure spending without GOP votes is “certainly a consideration.”

One way or another, Schumer said, the Democratic-led Congress will deliver “big, bold action.”