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Joe Biden’s Filibuster Defense Doesn’t Make Much Sense


On Wednesday, two Democratic leaders took differing approaches to combating threats to democracy. One reflected current political realities; the other was rooted in an alluring political daydream. One made sense; the other…not so much. Yesterday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the unexpected but welcome step of vetoing two of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s picks for the select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill. McCarthy predictably performed outrage, which was legitimized by horse race-style coverage in some corners of the media, but Pelosi’s move was in no way unreasonable: The committee’s mandate is to probe the insurrection Donald Trump and his allies incited, and the two McCarthy appointees she rejected—Jim Jordan and Jim Banks—not only participated in the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, but made clear after their selection that they would use their spots on the panel to undermine its work. 

As Republican committee member Liz Cheney pointed out as she defended Pelosi against McCarthy’s “disingenuous” broadsides, Jordan “may well be a material witness to events that led to that day,” and Banks “disqualified himself by his comments in particular over the past 24 hours, demonstrating that he is not taking this seriously, that he is not dealing with the facts of this investigation but rather viewed it as a political platform.” (Banks said after his nomination that the committee was only created to “malign conservatives” and to help Democrats enact their “authoritarian agenda,” and suggested he would use his perch on the panel to investigate the “extremist” left instead.)

There could be some political blowback for Pelosi’s move, of course, but it was the right one: McCarthy named Jordan and Banks to the panel only so they could sabotage its work. By rejecting them, Pelosi is putting that vital work ahead of the performative politics of civility—a refreshing acknowledgment that bipartisanship doesn’t work if both sides aren’t acting in good faith.

This maddening reality hasn’t appeared to influence Joe Biden’s admirable but self-defeating hope that the Trumpist GOP can be coaxed into engaging productively with Democrats. During a CNN town hall on Wednesday night, the president was asked about abolishing the filibuster in order to pass bills protecting voting rights, which Republicans have been working to roll back since Trump’s loss in November. While Biden conceded that “abuse of the filibuster is pretty overwhelming,” and again suggested reforming it, he ultimately defended the procedure itself, insisting that he could bring together a bipartisan coalition to protect the franchise. “I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats,” Biden said on the voting rights issue. “We bring along Republicans who I know know better. They know better than this.”

That’s an optimistic view of a cohort openly seeking to win elections not by appealing to more Americans, but by making it harder for Democratic-leaning constituencies to cast ballots. Even Cheney, who has been effectively exiled from the GOP for criticizing Trump, has defended the restrictive voting laws her party has ushered in. Biden isn’t wrong to try to restore the norms his predecessor eroded—“I’m trying to bring this country together,” he reiterated Wednesday—but he won’t get very far if he insists on doing so with the cooperation of the people who aided in and benefited from their erosion. 

There are political calculations here, of course, just as there are with the harder tack Pelosi adopted Wednesday. While the House Speaker’s caucus seems pretty united in the view that Jim Jordan is an annoying asshole, the president is dealing with a Senate that has mixed opinions on the filibuster. Many Democrats have come around to abolishing it. But others, like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, remain steadfastly in favor. Biden, then, may see the filibuster debate as a delicate balancing act. But if that’s the case, one would expect his arguments in favor of keeping the procedure to be a bit more compelling. “You’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos” if the filibuster is eliminated entirely, Biden told CNN’s Don Lemon Wednesday. “Nothing will get done, right? Nothing at all will get done, and there’s a lot at stake.”

That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—eliminating the 60-vote threshold would seem to allow for more to get done, not less—but Biden’s reasoning only underscores how tenuous his position is: The notion that voting rights can be protected with the assistance of the very people attacking them is so absurd, it can only be justified with similarly absurd arguments. Biden has made it clear that he wants to preserve and strengthen voting rights and that he resents the GOP’s crusade to suppress them. But Democrats seem to be hamstringing themselves in their efforts to fight back by adhering to rules that their counterparts stopped following long ago. Pelosi, in exercising her final say as House Speaker to keep two brazen insurrectionists off the January 6 committee regardless of the inevitable bellyaching from Republicans, demonstrated not only boldness, but common sense. Biden would be wise to follow suit.

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