Filibuster Frustrations Boil Over Among Stymied House Democrats

  • Bills likely to pass House hit roadblock in other chamber
  • Senate Democrats lack votes to change filibuster rules

House Democrats, poised for a busy month passing major legislation, are expressing frustration that most of their efforts will fail over parliamentary hurdles on the other end of the Capitol despite their party’s control of Washington for the first time in a decade.

The boiling tensions were triggered in part by both the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling that a minimum wage hike couldn’t be included in the coronavirus stimulus package — which Democrats must pass through reconciliation to avoid needing any Republican votes — and the Biden administration’s refusal to challenge it. They also came as House Democrats are teeing up votes on a set of bills that the House passed in the last Congress but were never taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate.

House members can do nothing to change the rules of the other chamber. Yet the increasingly loud exasperation, paired with appeals to senators and the White House, underscores how difficult governing has become, even for a party running the legislative and executive branches.

“It’s frustrating,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday. “I personally believe the filibuster is an undemocratic aspect of the United States Senate. At some point and time, the majority ought to be able to rule.”

Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), and other House Democratic leaders speak at a Feb. 26 news conference on the Covid-19 stimulus package.

The filibuster, which requires 60 votes to advance legislation, and limitations on what can be done through the budget reconciliation process — which, under what’s known as the Byrd Rule, allows certain legislation to advance with only a simple majority — has evoked the ire of House Democrats.

Progressive lawmakers urged the White House in a March 1 letter to refute the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling that the minimum wage couldn’t be included in the stimulus bill under the Byrd Rule — named after former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who died in 2010 — which the Biden administration doesn’t plan to do.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently referred to the procedure as “the dead guy rule.”

“It’s stupid,” DeFazio said of the rule during a Rules Committee hearing on last week. “The Senate has a filibuster. They’ve got the dead guy rule. It’s going to cripple a lot of legislative initiatives.”

Hoyer and others have also raised the filibuster’s historic role in blocking civil rights legislation. He called the filibuster undemocratic and said it was used “to undermine the rights of citizens of color in America.”

Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said using the filibuster to deny a minimum wage increase is tantamount to using it to deny civil rights. He called on senators to change the rules.

“We’re not going to just give into their arcane methods of denying progress,” he said. “I will not be quiet on this issue. People of color will not be quiet on this issue.”

But if House lawmakers hope applying some pressure sways their pro-filibuster Senate counterparts, there’s little evidence it will be successful.

“Never!” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) declared when asked Monday whether he might support getting rid of the filibuster. “What don’t you understand about never?”

Filibuster proponents have argued it encourages bipartisan negotiations and has been used over the years by Democrats to block legislation their party opposes, including anti-abortion and oil drilling measures.

Upcoming Legislation

The bills headed to the House floor this month include expanding background checks for purchasing guns (H.R. 8, H.R. 1446), overhauling labor law (H.R. 842), and banning police practices such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants (H.R. 1280). Democrats also plan to bring up bills addressing domestic violence, equal rights regardless of sex, and immigration.

The House passed almost all of them in the 116th Congress, most along party lines with minimal Republican support. That indicates a steep climb to get 10 Republican senators to support any of them — that’s the number needed to overcome a filibuster in the evenly divided Senate.

Also at play is the potentially limited time Democrats have in total control. In the 2022 midterms, redistricting and the historical trend of the party in the White House losing seats in Congress both favor Republicans .

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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