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Obama aims death blow at Senate filibuster

Essential Politics illustration.

President Trump‘s remark about potentially delaying the November election got the lion’s share of attention on Thursday, but a line later that day from his predecessor will, in the long run, likely be remembered as the most consequential utterance of the week.

“You want to honor John?” President Obama said in his eulogy to the late Rep. John Lewis. “Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.”

Obama then spooled out a voting rights litany: revitalizing the Voting Rights Act, adopting automatic voter registration, expanding the number of polling places, guaranteeing early voting, admitting Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico as states, restricting partisan gerrymanders.

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“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he declared.

A long debate suddenly shifts

Obama famously weighs his words. Since leaving office, he has only intervened a few times in debates over his party’s future. His call for eliminating the filibuster marked the most significant public step he’s taken to influence Democratic policy.

Lewis’ funeral gave him the high-profile occasion. But his timing took advantage of a swelling movement within the party’s ranks to eliminate the filibuster.

Under current Senate rules, no substantive legislation can pass without 60 votes — the threshold needed to end debate and bring a measure to a final vote. The main legislative exception is the complex process known as budget reconciliation, which applies only to bills involving spending and revenue.

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As recently as a few months ago, during the Democratic primaries, many leading Democrats either opposed changing that 60-vote requirement (Joe Biden, for example) or took equivocal stands (Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker). When asked about the filibuster, Sanders and others cited examples of Democrats using the rules to block what they considered dangerous proposals by Republicans.

In 2017, 61 senators, including many leading Democrats, signed a bipartisan letter expressing support for keeping the filibuster rule intact.

Two factors this spring and summer have combined to change that: The protest movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd has pushed police reform and voting rights much higher on the Democratic priority list, and the increased likelihood of Democrats winning a Senate majority has forced party leaders to confront questions about how they would achieve those goals in the face of all-but-certain resistance from Senate Republicans.

In recent weeks, both Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Biden have expressed willingness to at least consider changing the filibuster.

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In mid-July, Biden told reporters he’d consider backing a change if Senate Republicans consistently blocked his agenda.

“It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” he said. “I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it.”

A couple of days later, Schumer took a similarly tentative step, saying “nothing’s off the table” if Democrats regain the Senate majority.

Both followed Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, the lead Democrat on the 2017 letter defending the filibuster, who in June said that “I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn” by Republican filibusters.

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Obama’s words, openly advocating repeal, go far beyond those tentative remarks. As the most popular figure in the party, his endorsement carries significant weight, putting senior Senate Democrats, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in a much tougher spot if they continue to support the filibuster rule.

Moreover, Obama’s labeling of the filibuster as a “relic” of Jim Crow segregation links the current effort to get rid of filibusters back to its historic roots in the struggle for Black civil rights.

The filibuster developed as a legislative tactic in the early 19th century. In the ensuing 200 years, although it’s been used by both parties to block a wide range of legislation, its most famous use was by Southern Democrats and their conservative allies to block civil rights legislation for much of the 20th century. That tactic wasn’t defeated until 1964, when the Senate, for the first time, broke the Southern resistance and passed the Civil Rights Act.

Throughout that period and in following years, limiting the filibuster was a major goal for progressives. In 1975, helped by a procedural ruling from then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a pro-civil-rights Republican, progressives scored a significant victory in the Senate, lowering the threshold to end debate from the two-thirds set in 1917 down to 60.

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At the time, some thought that would be the end of the filibuster. Instead, in recent years, the requirement for a super-majority vote has gone from being rare to routine, with almost everything needing 60 votes to pass.

But as the 60-vote requirement became more common, pressure to jettison it built.

In 2013, Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and faced by Republican efforts to block Obama’s nominees, eliminated the filibuster for votes on federal offices other than the Supreme Court. In 2017, Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, took the next step and wiped out the filibuster for Supreme Court picks.

Republicans haven’t gone further and ended the filibuster for legislation because, by and large, their party doesn’t have much legislation it considers critical to pass. With the exception of the 2017 tax cut, which passed under reconciliation rules, the Republican agenda has mostly consisted of approving conservative judicial nominations and blocking bills that Democrats want.

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But if the Democrats regain control of the White House and the Senate, they will come into office with a long list of legislative priorities. The voting rights agenda Obama outlined will jockey for place with reforms to healthcare, measures on climate change, citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, gun control and efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy.

With the exception of a tax hike and, perhaps, healthcare reform, none of those measures fit into a budget bill, so all would be at the mercy of a Republican filibuster.

Even if they do gain the majority, Democrats probably won’t move immediately to change the Senate rules. Getting agreement from enough Democratic senators will likely require proof that Republicans will use the filibuster to block what the party considers critical legislation.

But unless McConnell and his fellow Republicans pick a very different path from the one they followed during the Obama years, the crunch probably will come quickly, with Democrats likely to push the renamed John Lewis Voting Rights Act as an early test.

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If that becomes the occasion for transforming the Senate into a majority-vote legislative body, Obama’s comments this week should be seen as the moment the tide turned.

A record collapse and a failed deflection

The economy shrank 9.5% in the second quarter of this year — a rate that would translate into a 39.5% decline if the slump continued over the entire year. That’s a record collapse in GDP, which points to the depth of the economic challenge facing the country, Don Lee wrote.

At the same time, new figures from the Labor Department showed first-time unemployment claims rose to 1.43 million — the second week of increase after about three months of steady decline.

Together the economic indicators showed how much damage the resurgence of the coronavirus has wreaked on the U.S. economy in recent weeks.

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That bad news increased pressure on lawmakers to come up with a new economic relief package, but negotiations on Capitol Hill remain stalled, in large part because of divisions among Senate Republicans. About half the GOP caucus opposes any new legislation. Lawmakers hope they may be able to reach a deal in the coming week, but tensions are rising among GOP senators, and between the Senate and the White House, not to mention the huge gap between all of them and Democrats.

Trump has done little to advance the negotiations other than undercut McConnell by labeling the bill he introduced Monday “irrelevant.”

Instead, shortly after the bad economic news came out, the president fired off a tweet suggesting delaying the November election. As Chris Megerian wrote, the proposal quickly drew rebukes from leaders of both parties — an indication of how Trump’s drop in polls has been mirrored by declining influence among lawmakers.

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Big Tech draws scrutiny

Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of Apple and Google answered questions from Congress about antitrust concerns this week. As Brian Contreras wrote, the hearing marked a major step in Congress’ efforts to scrutinize the power that the major tech companies hold.

But while the tech executives had to fend off tough questions from both parties, they appeared to emerge relatively unscathed from the encounter. Congress remains far from agreement on any steps to break up Amazon, Facebook, Google or Apple or to seriously curtail their business practices. The next day, all four companies saw their stock prices increase.

Administration tries to rush the census

Former Census Bureau directors warned Congress extra time is vital for an accurate 2020 count, Sarah Wire wrote. The testimony came amid increasing indications that the Trump administration is trying to speed the count to make up for time lost to the coronavirus lockdown.

Some officials want to wrap up the census count this year so the administration can present the final numbers before the end of Trump’s current term. In April, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked Congress for four extra months to complete the count, but the administration has since withdrawn that request and asked for additional money to complete the work by the original deadline of Dec. 31.

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Trump to cut troops in Germany

The administration is planning to bring 6,400 troops home from Germany and move others elsewhere in Europe, David Cloud wrote. Although Pentagon officials tried to offer a strategic rationale for the shift, Trump publicly made clear that it’s part of his running feud with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It remains unclear, however, if the troop cuts will actually be accomplished before the November election. If Biden wins, the move would likely be put on ice.

Voter registration ticks upward

Earlier this year, the pandemic scrambled voter-registration efforts, creating a lot of worry among Democrats about a decline in new registration among young people and in Black and Latino communities.

But new voter mobilization efforts have begun to bear fruit, Megan Botel and Isaiah Murtaugh reported. The voter efforts are part of a surge in activism connected to the protests against police violence.

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