Anti-abortion forces are campaigning to protect the filibuster and crush voting rights — and Democrats may be content to let them win.
The right-wingers promoting the filibuster have been fully transparent about their goal: They want to block a federal voting rights law so they can elect more anti-choice politicians and to protect the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority that’s threatening abortion rights. It’s one more piece of evidence that defending the filibuster isn’t about preserving a rarified legislative tradition — it’s all about rigging the game to maximize conservatives’ power.
So far, some Democrats seem content with allowing conservatives to win the argument and are refusing to end the filibuster — while other party lawmakers are considering weaker rule changes that might not do anything to help Democrats actually pass a voting rights bill.
Last year, the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) helped launch the Election Transparency Initiative, with the stated goal of blocking Democrats from passing a national voting rights bill that would undo new Republican voter suppression laws around the country. Central to that effort: defending the filibuster, the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to advance most legislation.
In a press release announcing the initiative, the SBA List said the effort would include opposing H.R.1 — the strongest voting rights and democracy reform bill that Democrats have considered — and “mounting a vigorous defense of the filibuster and current Senate rules governing the reconciliation process, so as to prevent the worst of the pro-abortion Democrat agenda: unilaterally passing H.R.1. and expanding the Supreme Court.”
According to Pew Research survey data from last year, roughly six in ten Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
In recent months, the Election Transparency Initiative has been running ads pressuring corporate Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — the two Democrats who have publicly opposed filibuster reforms — not to allow any changes to the filibuster.
“For a century the filibuster has been a bedrock senate tool ensuring bipartisanship,” says one video ad from the Election Transparency Initiative. “Ending it means more dysfunction. Thankfully, Sen. Joe Manchin pledged to protect the filibuster, despite partisan pressure to cave. If Manchin sides with liberal elites to weaken the filibuster with carve-outs for Democrats' priorities, he would violate the trust of voters. Tell Manchin: Keep your promise. Protect the filibuster.”
A similar version has aired recently on West Virginia radio stations.
An Arizona ad from the group says: “Congress is broken and extreme politicians want to make it worse by abolishing the senate's 60-vote filibuster rule. Sen. John McCain knew better and pledged preservation of the filibuster to ensure bipartisan cooperation. Thankfully Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has promised to honor McCain's legacy and protect the filibuster. But if Sinema votes to eliminate or weaken the filibuster, she would be just another hypocritical politician.”
Manchin and Sinema, the Democratic Party’s rotating villains of choice for the Biden era, have both publicly resisted calls to end the filibuster, arguing that Senate Democrats and Republicans should learn to work together instead — a fantasy that plays into the hands of groups like the SBA List that want to eliminate abortion access and restrict voting rights as well as corporate lobbyists who want to prevent Democrats from passing any bills that could threaten their clients’ profits.
With the GOP blocking voting rights legislation all of last year, Democrats are now once again considering a number of potential filibuster reform options, with President Joe Biden imploring them on Tuesday to change the rules “whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”
It’s not clear yet whether Democrats can win over Sinema or Manchin, even though the West Virginia senator backed filibuster reforms a decade ago. And some of the more limited filibuster reform ideas Democrats are discussing might not even functionally end the GOP’s legislative blockade and help to pass a voting rights bill — a reminder that Democratic lawmakers are much more comfortable failing the public than the donor class and are fine with Republicans setting policy.
“A Vigorous Defense Of The Filibuster”
The SBA List last year helped create the Election Transparency Initiative, helmed by Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and abortion rights opponent who served as an immigration official in the Trump administration.
While the initiative was announced as a joint effort between the SBA List and another conservative group, the American Principles Project, state incorporation records show the SBA List is acting as the group’s fiscal sponsor, registering the Election Transparency Initiative as a fictitious name in Virginia.
Ad buy filings with the Federal Communications Commission name SBA List officials — president Marjorie Dannenfelser and chairman Jane Abraham — as the leaders of the Election Transparency Initiative.
The SBA List has been extremely open about why it created the Election Transparency Initiative and why it’s opposing efforts to reform or eliminate the filibuster: The organization wants to block federal voting rights legislation in order to protect new restrictive state voting laws, with the point being that it will be easier to elect more anti-abortion lawmakers.
They also want to make sure Democrats don’t try to add seats to the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative supermajority could soon overturn the court’s landmark 1973 abortion decision, Roe v. Wade.
Keeping the filibuster in place so that bills can’t pass by a simple majority vote would also make it impossible for Democrats to pass existing legislation to codify Roe as a federal law — something Barack Obama had pledged to do in his first act as president. The Women’s Health Protection Act legislation currently has 48 Democratic cosponsors, with the only holdouts being Manchin and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.
To be clear, it’s not as if the SBA List has any kind of ideological affection for the filibuster or Senate rules: When Republicans eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in order to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, the SBA List issued a press release praising the move.
“Today the Senate voted to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice,” the organization wrote. “The vote comes one day after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to change the procedural rules of the Senate and end the Democrats’ filibuster of President Trump’s nominee.”
“The swift fulfillment of President Trump’s commitment to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices is a tremendous win for the pro-life movement,” Dannenfelser added in the release.
While Manchin and Sinema pretend that keeping the filibuster encourages interparty cooperation and calling for voting rights legislation to be passed in a bipartisan manner, anti-abortion activists have already admitted their campaign to protect the filibuster is about ensuring that Democrats cannot pass a voting rights bill at all or try to undo the GOP’s Supreme Court supermajority.
It’s a much more honest approach than what gets said by corporate lobbying groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has also opposed filibuster reform because the rule serves to protect business interests, but has instead insisted that the rule encourages lawmakers “to build consensus and encourage collaboration.”
As the Chamber wrote last year, “Only in Washington could getting 60 out of 100 people to agree feel like an insurmountable obstacle… Issues of national importance deserve the time, thoughtfulness, and deliberation that the filibuster provides.”
That’s the same kind of spin you often hear from Sinema and Manchin.
Although Manchin and Sinema are still making discouraging statements about the idea of reforming the filibuster, Democrats have decided they want to take another shot at passing a voting rights bill — so they are once again discussing potential filibuster reform proposals.
Unfortunately, they aren’t just talking about eliminating the filibuster, which should not exist in any way.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that some of “the smaller-scale ideas” that Senate Democrats are debating “may not fully overcome the GOP's staunch opposition to the elections bill.”
There is no point to Democrats spending time on an effort to modify the filibuster if it doesn’t allow them to pass legislation. The whole debate over whether Democrats should end or reform the filibuster — which has gone on for an excruciating 12 years now — is proof that Democrats are afraid of being able to govern. They want to retain their excuse for continually failing to pass any promised legislation that would negatively affect their donors.
Some of the Democrats proposing more limited reforms backed stronger filibuster changes a decade ago.
For instance, Politico recently reported that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) “said she wants to put the onus on the minority to put up 41 votes to stop legislation rather than on the majority to find 60 votes to advance legislation. She'd also like to eliminate the ability of the minority to block bills from even being debated on the Senate floor. Those reforms probably wouldn’t be enough to allow elections reform legislation to pass given unified GOP opposition, but would chip away at the minority’s power.”
In early 2010, however, Shaheen led an effort to fundamentally gut the filibuster — proposing that the 60-vote threshold to end debate on legislation drop to 51 votes after just a few days of debate.
The media has also completely memory-holed Manchin’s own past support for filibuster reforms, even as he’s emerged as the public face of Democratic opposition to changing filibuster rules.
Politico wrote Tuesday that “Manchin has voted against every rule change along party lines since he came to the Senate in 2010.”
This information is still on Manchin’s Senate website — included in a press release in which Manchin declared: “West Virginians deserve a government that works for them, and they are understandably frustrated with the way things get done — or don’t — in Washington.”
A decade later, Democrats still can’t get things done in Washington, even with full control of Congress — thanks to Manchin, Sinema, and every other party lawmaker who are keeping the filibuster in place like conservatives and anti-abortion zealots want.