Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper performs a song on the banjo outside the U.S. Capitol in support of the For the People Act, from a video he tweeted on May 25, 2021. (screenshot)
Republicans in Washington have abandoned basic principles of governing. They have dropped any pretense of caring about the best interests of Americans. Many of them have even rejected reality and insist on believing up is down.
For Democrats who must operate in the same legislative chamber as Republicans, that means hope for cooperation is foolish. Compromise? Off the table. Tradition? Demolished. Negotiation? Pfft.
Coloradans can see this from across the country, so why can’t its two senators?
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The Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper so far have failed to meet the moment. Too often they have gone about their business as if Washington were still a place where compromise worked and norms remained. But as much as they’d prefer to cling to a legislative ideal of good faith, cross-party debate and resolution in the name of duty to the American people, the GOP is categorically uninterested in any such thing.
The cost of Democratic weakness is a faltering agenda. The majority is trying to advance critical initiatives related to jobs, infrastructure, climate change, immigration and the preservation of democracy itself. But in large measure their efforts are failing. This is at least partly due to adherence to obsolete rules of engagement, the most outmoded of which relate to the filibuster.
Republicans are explicit in their refusal to govern. “One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month. What more convincing message does one need? If Democrats try to achieve something, Republicans will try to thwart it. No matter what. Even if it’s good for the country. Even if it could save the country.
A mob inspired by then-President Donald Trump, and with allies inside the Senate chamber, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and tried to undo democracy. This was an insurrection, and it put at risk the lives of members of Congress in their very place of work. Yet when legislation that would have created a commission to investigate the attack came to the Senate, Republicans blocked it with their first Biden-era filibuster. The outcome was not a surprise — it’s been clear from the start of the Trump presidency that Republicans are irredeemably dangerous to the survival of the republic — but it laid bare this truth: The old rules no longer apply.
Threat of a filibuster stands in the way of other crucial business. It has helped derail President Joe’s Biden’s plan to restore America’s aging infrastructure. It’s an obstacle to the For the People Act, an election reform bill that would counter the GOP “big lie” that Trump actually won in November and the spate of voter-suppression laws that Republican-controlled state legislatures have since enacted. It’s also putting out of reach legislation on LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights and gun violence prevention.
The filibuster is made possible by a Senate rule that effectively requires 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to pass most legislation. Proponents of the filibuster argue that it promotes bipartisanship. But even if that were true, it increasingly has been abused, particularly by McConnell, and its use has expanded dramatically in recent years. Moreover, it has a disturbing association with racist politics. It was pioneered by pro-slavery senators in the 1800s. The late S.C. Sen. Strom Thurmond holds the record for longest filibuster, which he employed against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Former President Barack Obama last year called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic.”
It’s clear the filibuster today has only one use: indiscriminate veto power for the Republicans. And yet the filibuster could be eliminated with a majority vote. Why haven’t Bennet and Hickenlooper come out decisively, unwaveringly, emphatically in favor of such no-brainer reform?
Hickenlooper’s position is especially confounding. In April during a virtual town hall, he defended the filibuster. “I want to give the traditional system a good chance to succeed,” the senator said (a Hickenlooper spokesperson confirmed this week that his position remains unchanged). “And that means that, you know, trying to build relationships with members of the other party, see if we can get to 60 votes.”
What is he talking about? This traditional system no longer exists. Build relationships with members of the other party? Is that the same party whose sole, stated objective is to undermine the Democratic agenda? The party allied with insurrectionists? The party of the big lie, of Trump?
Hickenlooper’s primary contribution to the Democrats’ push for election reform was a gauche banjo performance outside the U.S. Capitol when, with American democracy on the line, what the occasion called for was indignant shaming of his franchise-hating colleagues. Hickenlooper’s tone-deaf (and pitch-challenged) antics made him appear oblivious to the stakes.
Bennet has suggested he’s open to filibuster reform. “I don’t know what the reform of the filibuster, what form it will finally take,” Bennet said on MSNBC in late May. “But I think we should not perpetuate McConnell’s bastardization of the Senate filibuster.”
If that’s all he can muster, he’s not doing his part.
Coloradans who sent Bennet to Washington expect him to meet an opposition party bent on dismantling the place with fierce resistance. If he doesn’t know what form the filibuster should take, here’s the correct answer: none.
Among liberal voters, much exasperation has centered on conservative Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are vocal in their opposition to filibuster reform. But agnostic positions like those of Colorado’s senators give political cover to the democracy killers in their own caucus.
Democrats in Colorado cheered when in November Hickenlooper claimed a Senate seat from one-term Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. But in practice his win so far has meant precious little difference for constituents. When it comes to the Democrats’ agenda in the Senate, it sounds like the same old tune.
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