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Politics & Government

Senate Filibuster Becomes A 2020 Issue


Democrats running for president are taking progressive stances. This week, for example, several endorsed a bill legalizing recreational marijuana, but a progressive agenda raises another question. How do you pass it? Even if Democrats win the White House, even if they also win the Senate, Republicans could still block legislation in the Senate with a filibuster. And some voters are asking the candidates, what do you plan to do about that? NPR's Scott Detrow reports.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Campaigning for president, California Senator Kamala Harris talks a lot about the need to speak the truth. So it was notable that when an Iowa voter asked her about getting rid of the legislative filibuster, Harris dodged.


KAMALA HARRIS: That's a great question.


HARRIS: Let's change the subject (laughter).

DETROW: If you couldn't quite hear the recording made by the Huffington Post, Harris joked, let's change the subject. In the Senate this week, Harris was still keeping the question at arm's length.


HARRIS: You know, I'm conflicted. I see the arguments on both sides.

DETROW: She's not the only one. Here's Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown who's exploring a run.


SHERROD BROWN: I just haven't really put a lot of thought into it yet. Sorry.

DETROW: For most of its history, the Senate has required a supermajority - first 67 votes, then 60 - to end debate and move forward to final votes. In the face of a lot more blocked votes, Democrat Harry Reid eliminated the filibuster for lower court and executive nominations in 2013. Republican Mitch McConnell did the same for Supreme Court picks in 2017. That means all these nominees can now be confirmed with simple majorities, and many have been. So now more and more progressive activists are saying that if Democrats win the White House and the Senate in 2020, they should do the same for bills. Ezra Levin is the co-founder of the grassroots group Indivisible. He says Democrats will never get 60 votes for expanding health care or most of the other big policies candidates are pushing for.

EZRA LEVIN: And we know that the Republicans will utilize every tool available to them to prevent these kinds of big reforms from getting done. They've done it before. They did it during the entirety of the Obama administration.

DETROW: But with one exception. None of the senators running for president like this idea. Here's New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Vermont's Bernie Sanders.


CORY BOOKER: I will personally resist efforts to get rid of it.


BERNIE SANDERS: No, I'm not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster.

DETROW: Speaking to "Pod Save America," New York's Kirsten Gillibrand dismissed the idea that Democratic priorities couldn't pass unless the filibuster went away.


KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: And so if you're not able to get 60 votes on something, it just means you haven't worked hard enough talking to enough people.

DETROW: In fact, the only senator running for president who's even open to the idea is Massachusetts' Elizabeth Warren. It's a sharp break from some of the non-senators in the race, including Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

JAY INSLEE: The filibuster will essentially doom us to a situation where we'll never be able to fight climate change.

DETROW: Delaware Democrat Chris Coons is blunt about his view of this argument.


CHRIS COONS: It's a terrible idea.

DETROW: Coons says the filibuster is the one thing giving the minority party a chance to shape policy. Without it, Coons says Republicans would've done a lot more since President Trump took office. Indivisible's Ezra Levin says he's willing to make that tradeoff.

LEVIN: Look, democracy is the theory that the people know what they want, and they deserve to get it. And I don't think, as pro-democracy progresses, we can afford to be scared of the will of the people.

DETROW: Of course for this to be anything but a theoretical argument for Democrats, they'll have to keep the House, win the White House and flip three Senate seats. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.