Last fall, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) appeared as adamantly opposed to filibuster reform as any Democrat.
“I think the filibuster serves a purpose. It is not often used, it’s often less used now than when I first came, and I think it’s part of the Senate that differentiates itself,” she said in September. (In reality, the number of filibusters — or, at least, the number of votes taken to break filibusters — spiked precipitously in recent years.)
The senator’s support for the rule, which essentially requires most legislation to receive 60 votes in order to pass the Senate, was seen as so strong that as recently as Friday afternoon, the conservative National Review published a piece with the triumphant headline “Feinstein Still Supports the Filibuster.” In that piece, Feinstein is quoted responding “I do right now, yes” when asked if she supports leaving the 60-vote requirement in place.
But the National Review’s piece appears to have had a very short shelf life. In a statement released Friday night, Feinstein now says she’s “open” to changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, if necessary to pass legislation such as expanded background checks for firearm purchases, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, or a voting rights bill.
“Ideally the Senate can reach bipartisan agreement on those issues,” the 87-year-old senator said in the statement. “But if that proves impossible and Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster by requiring cloture votes, I’m open to changing the way the Senate filibuster rules are used.”
Feinstein’s journey from a vocal defender of the filibuster into someone more open to reform mirrors that of many of her fellow Democrats. In 2017, for example, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) was one of two primary organizers behind a letter signed by 61 senators, which called on Senate leaders to “preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions” that allow senators to filibuster legislation.
Yet Coons, who is widely viewed as a close ally of President Joe Biden, said last summer that he’s open to reform because he “will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn.”
Biden himself endorsed a kind of reform earlier this week, saying, “back in the old days,” a senator who wished to maintain a filibuster “had to stand up and command the floor” and “keep talking on.” The president suggested that the Senate could reinstate this requirement, allowing the majority to end a filibuster if its supporters stop giving Senate floor speeches in favor of it — creating a so-called “talking filibuster.”
Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a senator who has repeatedly said that he wants to keep the filibuster alive in some form, has indicated that he’s open to requiring talking filibusters — although Manchin’s been reluctant to open the door to other kinds of filibuster reform.
That leaves Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who said last month that she’d even support strengthening the filibuster by rolling back previous reforms, as the primary Democratic holdout on filibuster reform. Because Democrats control exactly half of the Senate’s 100 seats plus the vice presidency, they will likely need every single member of their caucus to support filibuster reform in order for any filibuster reform to pass.
The momentum appears to be on the side of “talking filibusters,” but it’s not clear such a reform would matter much
If filibuster reform does pass the current Senate, it’s likely to include some form of the “talking” filibuster. This reform appears to have the greatest support among Democrats who appear cautious about abolishing the filibuster outright. Feinstein’s statement, for example, says that a talking filibuster is “an idea worth discussing.”
But a requirement that a least one senator must give a floor speech opposing a bill in order to block it is unlikely, on its own, to do much to reform the Senate. In its simplest form, a talking filibuster requires just one senator who supports a filibuster to be on the floor at any given time. Thus, so long as the GOP caucus’s 50 members are allowed to tag-team, each taking turns maintaining the filibuster, they could theoretically keep a filibuster going forever.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) recently proposed a more robust reform that would circumvent any tag-team efforts — requiring at least 41 senators who oppose legislation to remain on the floor while a talking filibuster is going on. Manchin, however, appeared to take that idea off the table earlier this week.
Biden, meanwhile, suggested support for a different limit on filibusters during an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday. Under Biden’s idea, if a pro-filibuster senator paused while they were speaking in favor of that filibuster, he said, “someone could move in and say I move the question of” — a motion to “move” a “question” can refer to a procedural maneuver that seeks to end debate on a matter and force a vote.
That could create a chaotic, but effective, process to end filibusters as senators hoping to block legislation grew tired, and as alert senators of the opposing party looked for opportunities to force filibuster-ending votes.
In any event, negotiations over filibuster reform remain very much in flux within the Senate. And it remains to be seen whether holdouts like Sinema move toward reform. But Feinstein’s recent statement is good news for anyone hoping to see opponents to filibuster reform softening their stances — and to anyone who wants an ambitious legislative agenda to pass the Senate in the next two years.