Essential Politics: A Senate showdown builds as Biden takes a stand on filibusters and taxes

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) adjusts his face mask as he arrives for votes at the Capitol on Tuesday.
As the most conservative Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, seen here at the Capitol on Tuesday, holds the deciding vote on many issues in the evenly divided Senate.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

This is the March 19, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Like dry brush in a hot summer, fuel for a conflagration in the U.S. Senate has piled up in the opening weeks of President Biden‘s administration. This week added heavily to the load.

The president, in a television interview that aired Wednesday, talked about tax increases on high-income Americans and about potentially changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, which currently give the Republican minority the power to block Democratic legislation.

The next day, the House passed two immigration bills likely to face a filibuster. The measures aim to legalize the status of millions of immigrants currently living and working in the U.S. without permission. The votes added to the pile of House-passed legislation that Senate Republicans have vowed to block.


So far, the evenly divided Senate has been able to sidestep the issues raised by those House measures, spending most of its work time approving Biden’s nominees to head federal agencies. But as Biden and his aides like to remind people, the new administration is still in its early phase.

“I’ve only been here six weeks, pal,” he laughingly told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in their interview, somewhat underestimating his two-month tenure.

The early going has proceeded without a big Senate brushfire. But odds are that only increases the chance of a major conflagration later this year.

A multitude of flashpoints

Biden made several notable comments in the interview. Let’s start with the remark about filibusters.

The rule in question controls when bills in the Senate can come to a vote. In the classic filibuster — the one made famous in popular culture by the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — one senator, or a small group, can bring the chamber’s business to a halt and block legislation by taking the floor and talking nonstop.

In the 1939 film, Jimmy Stewart‘s character, a fictional senator from Montana, filibusters to block a corrupt land scheme.

In reality, filibusters in that era were mostly used by Southern senators to block civil rights legislation.

That sort of all-night talking spree mostly disappeared after the mid-1970s, when a real senator from Montana, then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, backed a reform of the Senate’s rules. Mansfield, a Democrat, not incidentally served as a mentor to a young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.

Mansfield’s rule dropped the number of senators needed to end debate to 60, from the previous two-thirds. It also allowed the Senate to proceed on dual tracks — on one, a measure could be stalled by extended debate, while on the other, the Senate could continue to do business.

At the time, the change marked a victory for progressives. But over the years, an unintended side effect emerged: Since senators no longer had to hold the floor for days on end to enforce a filibuster, the rule evolved into a de facto requirement that anything substantive in the Senate needed 60 votes to advance.

Biden, in the interview, suggested that perhaps the time had come to bring back the “talking filibuster” — the requirement that senators who want block a bill actually be on the floor.

“I don’t think you have to eliminate the filibuster. You have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days,” he said. “You had to stand up and command the floor.”

“It almost is getting to the point where there’s — you know, democracy’s having a hard time functioning,” he added.

James Stewart plays a fictional senator in the 1939 movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
James Stewart plays a fictional senator staging a filibuster in the 1939 Academy Award-nominated movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

The most notable aspect of what he said was that Biden answered the question at all. For months, he has mostly avoided wading into the issue, even after former President Obama last summer, while eulogizing Rep. John Lewis, denounced filibusters as a “Jim Crow relic.”

Since the inauguration, the president and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki have brushed off inquiries about his position on the filibuster, saying the matter is up to the Senate. Their reticence reflected a reality: Senate Democrats remain split on the issue, with several longtime senators reluctant to give up a rule that has allowed them to block Republican legislation.

Biden’s decision to discuss a change in the rule followed a comment by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who also suggested a possible return to talking filibusters. Together, the remarks signaled to Senate Democrats who have hesitated about a rules change that the topic was now fully open to discussion; and it made some sort of shift in the rules far more likely.

Biden’s comment on taxes, meanwhile, underscored why the ins and outs of Senate rules matter:

“Anybody making more than $400,000 will see a small to a significant tax increase,” he said. Psaki later clarified that Biden meant those earning just over $400,000 would see a small increase, while the hike would be more significant for those with much larger incomes.

Biden went on to advocate raising the corporate tax rate to 28%, up from the 21% set in President Trump‘s 2017 tax law, but still significantly lower than the 35% that had previously been the law.

Corporate taxes currently provide just 6.6% of federal revenue, down from 9% before Trump’s cut. Biden’s corporate tax proposal would raise more than $700 billion over the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which estimated that his full slate of tax proposals would raise about $2.1 trillion over that period. That’s about the amount by which Trump lowered federal revenue.

Biden conceded that “I may not get” any Republican support for that. “But I’ll get the Democratic votes for a tax increase,” he said.

Indeed, Senate Democrats largely agree on the need to raise more money from corporations and high-income families. And they’re all but certain to once again use budget reconciliation procedures — the same process used to pass the COVID relief bill — to pass another tax and spending measure this fall without Republican votes.

They can do that because under Senate rules, reconciliation bills can’t be filibustered. But the rules also say the procedures can only be used to pass legislation that directly involves taxes and spending.

The big questions for Democrats will be what gets to be part of the budget bill, and what to do with the many pieces of legislation that won’t fit on that train.

Immigration bills would likely not qualify under reconciliation rules. Other Democratic priorities, most importantly measures on voting rights, are even more certain not to make the cut.

Biden continues to say he believes that a significant number of Senate Republicans want to work with his administration and will, eventually, find a way to do so, at least on some topics.

“I think the epiphany’s gonna come in 20—, between now and 2022,” he told Stephanopoulos.

But not even the most optimistic Democrats expect Republican cooperation on the majority of their legislative priorities. As the year ages and the pile of legislation gets taller on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, the choice of surrendering major priorities or changing the Senate’s rules will grow starker.

As Californians know, once the dry brush piles up, it doesn’t take much to set off an inferno.

Biden responds to shootings

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had planned a joint visit to Atlanta on Friday as part of victory lap to mark passage of the COVID-19 relief plan. But the spree of killings on Tuesday at Atlanta-area spas, which targeted businesses owned or staffed by Asian Americans, reshaped the president’s plans, as Chris Megerian wrote.

The abrupt change served as a reminder of how much of a president’s time is shaped by events outside his control. It also provided another occasion for Biden to reprise his role as consoler to communities in mourning as he meets with Asian American leaders from the Atlanta area.

The shootings have also renewed calls for Congress to act against anti-Asian hate crimes, as Sarah Wire wrote. A House subcommittee held a hearing on the issue Thursday.

The latest from Washington

The Federal Reserve boosted its economic growth projection to 6.5% for this year, a torrid pace not matched for decades. If the projection holds, unemployment would drop sharply by the end of the year, as Don Lee wrote. At the same time, the Fed made clear that it intends to hold interest rates near zero to allow the economy to continue to run hot for an extended period.

Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell has downplayed fears of inflation, noting that the economy continues to have lots of slack.

California’s Xavier Becerra won confirmation as Health and Human Services secretary Thursday, Eli Stokols reported. The vote was nearly along party lines, with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine the only Republican to vote yes.

The vote was one of three the Senate took to confirm Biden nominees: Katherine Tai won approval as U.S. trade representative by 98-0 and William Burns, a longtime diplomat, won approval to head the CIA on a voice vote.

Here’s our rundown of who is in Biden’s Cabinet.

The White House has applied a light touch to courting GOP votes on nominations, as Stokols and Jennifer Haberkorn reported. So far, that strategy appears to be working.

Democrats have long worried that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court will overturn progressive legislation passed in blue states. The decision by the high court to hear a challenge to California’s law that allows union organizers access to farms has amped up those fears.

As David Savage reported, a group of farmers has sued to overturn the law, in place since the mid-1970s. They argue that the requirement that growers allow union organizers access to the fields amounts to an unconstitutional taking of private property without compensation.

A new intelligence report warns that domestic terrorism poses an “elevated” threat in 2021, Del Wilber reported.

Evan Halper reported that officials in Texas, embarrassed by the near-collapse of the state’s electricity grid during last month’s severe winter weather, have fallen back on a familiar Texas response: Blame California. The instinct is heightened by the fact that a House investigation of the Texas failure will be led by a liberal Democrat, Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken headed to Asia for a major early trip this week. As Tracy Wilkinson and Victoria Kim reported, the aim was to rebuild alliances and confront differences over China and North Korea.

The latest from California

Opponents of Gov. Gavin Newsom submitted their final recall petitions on Wednesday. Amid the widespread assumption that the recall will have enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, Democrats are scrambling to ensure a united front to keep the governor in office, Faith Pinho reported.

But the effort to recall Newsom could backfire on California Republicans, George Skelton warned in his column.

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