US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to his office after delivering floor remarks at the US Capitol in Washington, US, January 25, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: Sen. Mitch McConnell on Monday dropped his demand that the new Democratic Senate majority promise to preserve the filibuster - which Republicans could use to obstruct President Joe Biden’s agenda - ending an impasse that had prevented Democrats from assuming full power even after their election wins.

In his negotiations with Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the new majority leader, McConnell, had refused to agree to a plan for organising the chamber without a pledge from Democrats to protect the filibuster, a condition that Schumer had rejected.

But late Monday, as the stalemate persisted, McConnell found a way out by pointing to statements by two centrist Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, that said they opposed getting rid of the procedural tool - a position they had held for months - as enough of a guarantee to move forward without a formal promise from Schumer.

“With these assurances, I look forward to moving ahead with a power-sharing agreement modelled on that precedent,” McConnell said in a statement.

Democrats had been anticipating a capitulation by McConnell and said they believed he had overreached in the negotiation.

“We’re glad Sen. McConnell threw in the towel and gave up on his ridiculous demand,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesperson for Schumer. “We look forward to organising the Senate under Democratic control and start getting big, bold things done for the American people.”

But as in past fights over the filibuster, the outcome is likely to be only a temporary solution. As they press forward on Biden’s agenda, Democrats will come under mounting pressure from activists to jettison the rule, which effectively requires 60 votes to advance any measure, should Republicans use it regularly to stall or stop the administration’s priorities.

Even some lawmakers who have backed the filibuster strongly said they could change their minds if Republicans engaged in constant obstruction.

“I feel pretty damn strongly, but I will also tell you this: I am here to get things done,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “If all that happens is filibuster after filibuster, roadblock after roadblock, then my opinion may change.”

Signature feature of Senate

Tester is among those key to the rapidly developing showdown over the fate of the filibuster, the signature feature of the Senate - a once rarely employed weapon now used routinely to stall action in the gridlocked institution - that holds heavy consequences for Biden’s presidency.

McConnell’s demand for a preemptive surrender on the filibuster had infuriated Democrats who regarded it as evidence that the Republican leader intends to obstruct Biden’s proposals on pandemic relief, immigration, climate change, health care and more.

“Mitch McConnell will not dictate to the Senate what we should do and how we should proceed,” Schumer said Sunday. “McConnell is no longer the majority leader.”

The stalemate created a bizarre situation in which most Senate committees were frozen under Republican control and new senators could not be seated on the panels even though Democrats now command the Senate majority.

Beyond the immediate logistical effects, the feud reflected a challenging dynamic in the 50-50 Senate for Biden. By holding out against Democrats eager to take charge, McConnell was exercising what leverage he had. But he also foreshadowed an eventual clash in the chamber that might otherwise have taken months to unfold over how aggressive Democrats should be in seeking to accomplish Biden’s top priorities.

Democrats say they must retain at least the threat that they could one day end the filibuster, arguing that bowing to McConnell’s demand now would only have emboldened Republicans to deploy it constantly, without fear of retaliation.

“Well, that’s a nonstarter because if we gave him that, then the filibuster would be on everything, every day,” Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

At issue is a rule that is at the heart of the consensus-driven Senate, which effectively mandates that any legislation draw 60 votes to advance.

Subject to change

But like everything else in the chamber, the rule itself is subject to change if senators agree. As the majority party, Democrats could move to eliminate the filibuster and force through a change to the rules on a simple majority vote - a move known as detonating the “nuclear option” - if all 50 of their members held together and Vice-President Kamala Harris cast the tiebreaking vote.

Schumer said little of his strategy for rebuffing McConnell, other than calling his demand unacceptable. The new majority leader seemed to let Democrats and Biden, a former longtime senator who has been reluctant to overturn the filibuster, simmer over Republican tactics.

Yet Tester made it clear that McConnell’s tactics could rapidly change his view of the issue.

“But if, in fact, Mitch is going to put up roadblocks and filibuster the organising resolution, then I think Schumer has to take it to the floor,” Tester said.

Manchin had not changed his position even though McConnell’s demand was preventing Manchin from taking the helm of a committee of his own. In a 50-50 Senate, his defection alone would prevent the elimination of the rule.

“I’m in the minority of the caucus on this, I’m sure of that,” Manchin told reporters last week. “I think basically Chuck has the right to do what’s he’s doing. He has the right to use that leverage in whatever he wants to do. I’m not worried about that at all. They will work it out. I just haven’t changed where I’m at.”