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Harry Reid wants to kill the Senate filibuster to solve climate change

“It is not a question of if. It is a question of when we get rid of the filibuster.”

Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid speaking from behind a podium labeled “National Clean Energy Summit.”
Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit 9.0 in 2017.
Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit

Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid thinks there’s a huge reason Democrats should kill the Senate filibuster: the looming threat of climate change.

“[T]he No. 1 priority is climate change. There’s nothing that affects my children, grandchildren, and their children, right now, more than climate,” Reid told the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein in a recent interview.

It’s a notable recommendation coming from Reid, who retired from the Senate in 2017. After all, as majority leader he was responsible for blowing up the long-sacred filibuster in 2013 to pass former President Barack Obama’s court and Cabinet picks in the face of unrelenting obstruction from Senate Republicans. Four years later, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell pulled the same move to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominees with a simple majority.

When I interviewed Reid in his Las Vegas office in May, he seemed more hesitant to do away with the filibuster entirely. Reid told me it should be a gradual process, and that while “it’s not the end of the world for the Senate ... it would be better if we didn’t do it.”

A few months later, Reid appears to have changed his mind.

“It is not a question of if,” he told Stein. “It is a question of when we get rid of the filibuster. It’s gone. It’s gone.”

Reid’s sentiment reflects that of a number of Democratic candidates running for president, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. All of them want to lower the threshold to pass major bills from the current 60 required votes to a simple majority.

The reason they want to do this is a fear that even if Democrats somehow pull off winning the White House and Senate and hang onto the House in 2020, their big ideas won’t pass the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate. With problems as stark as climate change, some candidates want to act quickly, and they believe Senate procedure will get in the way.

More Democrats are talking about the need for structural reform

A growing number of 2020 Democrats are being forced to grapple not just with what they would do if elected president, but how exactly they would get it done. Here’s how Jay Inslee described it at a recent presidential debate:

“If we get a majority in the US Senate because of the position of these senators, not a damn thing is going to get done,” Inslee said. “And I’ll tell you why, with all their good intentions — and I know they’re sincere and passionate — but because they embraced the filibuster, Mitch McConnell is going to run the US Senate even if we take a majority.”

In other words, Democrats are grappling with their Mitch McConnell problem. McConnell is currently the Senate majority leader, but even when he and Republicans were the minority party in the Senate, he demonstrated the minority has real power to block legislation. McConnell used the filibuster time and time again to block even Obama’s picks for his Cabinet and court vacancies.

“In the past, the filibuster has been used very sparingly,” Reid told me in our May interview. “However, the Republican Congress in the last many years have filibustered everything so that 60 votes became the vote.”

Frustrated by this reality, Reid took the step of getting rid of the filibuster to pass Cabinet picks and some judges. And he didn’t regret the move in the least. Here’s what he told me:

We had Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers that Obama couldn’t get approved. So we had no choice; I had no choice. And that’s why the Democrats agreed to change the rules. Now, first of all, understand the rules have been changed in the Senate lots and lots of times. I did it; it was the right thing to do. We approved over 100 judges for Obama, we filled all his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers with rare exception, we took care of the National Labor Relations Board, we did a lot of good things. And it would not have happened otherwise. We had to do that or the White House, the president, would become a meaningless person.

Reid argued that McConnell’s use of the filibuster was not only hamstringing the US Senate, it also had the same effect on the president of the United States. But when I asked him if he agreed with Warren, Inslee, and Buttigieg in calling for an elimination of the filibuster, he didn’t seem so sure.

“No, I don’t. I think it should be done gradually,” Reid said. He explained that if the filibuster was done away with, the Senate could ostensibly become like the House of Representatives

“You would have two Houses of Representatives,” Reid said. “Now, would that be the end of the world? No, because it would still be bicameral. But you would have a simple majority determine what happens in the Senate. As I said, it’s not the end of the world for the Senate, but it would be better if we didn’t do it.”

Reid thinks climate change should be on the top of Democrats’ agenda

The big reason Reid wants Democrats to do away with the filibuster if they win back the Senate is so they can tackle climate change. Reid, like many others, is alarmed at increasingly hot temperatures, stronger storms, and reports of Arctic ice melting. And as he said in May, he’s very alarmed at the Trump administration ignoring all of it.

Reid told me Democrats need to illustrate “what [Trump’s] done to destroy the environment, which is a lot. He ignores climate change — the most significant problem facing mankind today, or maybe ever. He doesn’t think it exists.”

Democratic candidates have put forth a number of ambitious proposals to tackle climate change that calls for dramatically phasing back fossil fuel production in the United States and building out green infrastructure and manufacturing. If these plans were to become bills, they could face dramatic opposition from Republicans (some of whom still deny climate change is man-made).

“On climate change, we’re not going to change it overnight, but we have these things we have to do,” Reid told me. “Renewable energy is something … we need to get rid of coal — get rid of it! Fossil fuels, do everything we can to get rid of it. America can supply all the energy it needs with wind and sun and geothermal and biomass, all kinds of things. We do not need fossil fuel.”

That’s the crux of why Reid thinks the filibuster needs to be killed. He know the US — and the world — is running out of time to reverse the effects of climate change. Quick action needs to be taken, but Senate rules could stand in the way.