Facing a wall of Republican opposition, both New York senators have joined with many of their colleagues in eying a rule change that would allow them to pass voting rights legislation without any GOP support: modifying the filibuster.
The filibuster is an arcane Senate rule allowing the minority party to require 60 votes for most legislation to pass.
But, by calling for filibuster reforms, Sen. Charles Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and many of their Democratic colleagues are reversing previous positions on the Senate rule.
Status of Election Reform Push
Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia delivered a massive setback Thursday for Democrats in their push to pass voting rights legislation.
Both of them doubled down on their objections to changing the filibuster, all but ensuring the rule as it stands will live to see another day.
Senate Republicans, who are lined up against the voting rights legislation, are poised to use the 60-vote threshold to block the election reform bill from advancing.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden admitted he is “not sure” that voting rights will get done.
Schumer’s History on the Filibuster
Schumer’s position on the filibuster has evolved over the years.
In May 2005, he stood on the Senate floor, railing against the idea of doing away with the filibuster.
Democrats were in the Senate minority at the time, and using the rule to hold up judicial nominees from then-President George W. Bush.
“They will change the rules. Break the rules. Misread the Constitution so that they will get their way,” Schumer said, pointing to Republicans. “We are on the precipice of a crisis, a constitutional crisis.”
Fast-forward to April 2017, with Democrats again in the minority, Schumer blasted Republicans for creating an exception to the 60-vote rule, allowing U.S. Supreme Court seats to be filled by a simple majority.
“I hope the Republican leader and I can in the coming months find a way to build a firewall around the legislative filibuster, which is the most important distinction between the Senate and the House,” Schumer said at the time.
(In 2013, when they were in the Senate majority, Democrats themselves lowered the vote requirement for other nominees.)
Contrasting those past comments with today, Schumer - now the Senate Majority Leader - is now backing overhauling Senate rules, including the filibuster.
With Democrats holding the slimmest of possible majority, Republicans are now the ones blocking the president’s priorities, including the sweeping voting rights legislation.
Republicans, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, accuse Schumer of hypocrisy.
“Sen. Schumer spoke so eloquently in defense of the Senate’s rules, costumes and traditions when the fortunes of his party looked a little different,” he said Wednesday.
Schumer, defending his evolution, said Democrats have no choice.
“How can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?” he said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Gillibrand’s History on the Filibuster
New York’s junior senator, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, has undergone a similar evolution.
She co-signed a bipartisan letter in 2017, opposing rule changes in the Senate after Donald Trump became president.
Republicans were in the majority at the time.
Now, she supports altering the filibuster, saying the norms of the Senate have already been broken – especially when Republicans lowered the threshold for Supreme Court picks.
She argued Wednesday that changing the filibuster is a risk worth taking.
“I know that McConnell will misuse it when he is in charge. And I know it will be brutal,” she said. “But we are already seeing an erosion and destruction of basic constitutional rights - of voting rights and women's reproductive freedom throughout the country. And so I think we have to protect those rights now.”