ATLANTA — Democrats’ chances to make any headway on their agenda in Congress — including statehood for the District of Columbia, gun control and an increase in the minimum wage — ride on the outcome of the Senate runoff elections in Georgia early next month.
True power, however, hinges on more than whether the two Democrats in the Georgia races, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, win on Jan. 5. Liberal Democrats want the two candidates, if they win, to join calls to blow up the legislative filibuster in the Senate — a move that would render the GOP virtually powerless on Capitol Hill.
That perhaps helps explain why Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Warnock have been coy about their views on the touchy subject.
“If they were to come out and say, ‘I am going to eliminate the filibuster,’ that plays into the message that is run more by [Sen. David] Perdue than [Sen. Kelly] Loeffler and that is if Dems have control of the Senate they are going to do all kinds of untoward things — taking away health insurance, raising taxes and that they are not going to compromise,” said Charles S. Bullock, III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
At the same time, the two Democrats don’t want to anger the far-left vote by dismissing the idea, forcing them to walk a political tightrope between the two political worlds.
Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Warnock’s campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
Voters ultimately will have the final say Jan. 5.
The contest will determine whether Democrats can muster the support to eliminate the 60-vote supermajority threshold once and for all.
President Trump and Republicans, meanwhile, are warning voters that Democrats are going to do everything in their power — including scrapping the filibuster — to jam through a far-left policy wish list.
“Radical Democrats, if they get power, they will immediately abolish the Senate filibuster, allowing them to pass any bill they want and giving them free rein to ram through the most extreme left-wing agenda ever conceived, while at the same time destroying our military through the lack of funding,” Mr. Trump said at a recent rally in Valdosta, Georgia, where he was campaigning for Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler.
The filibuster, long one of the Senate’s defining features, has been used with more frequency this past decade.
It’s also being slowly dismantled, with Democrats in 2013 defanging the filibuster for all presidential nominations save for Supreme Court justices, and with Republicans finishing the job for high court nominees in 2017.
Both parties have also turned to workarounds, such as using the budget process, where a filibuster isn’t allowed, to try to win their priorities.
But for now, the filibuster remains a hurdle to getting most bills passed.
To change the filibuster would usually take a rules change, which requires a two-thirds vote. But the past two changes in 2013 and 2017 were done using the “nuclear option” shortcut, which can be done on a majority vote.
The shortcut doesn’t actually rewrite the rule but changes the Senate’s interpretation. The effect is the same, though — a new standard.
Democrats in the House, where no filibuster exists, have long complained about their counterparts in the Senate.
“I believe that the filibuster has outlived its usefulness,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes told The Washington Times last week.
Ms. Holmes Norton, a Democrat and Washington’s non-voting member of Congress, has been battling for decades to win statehood for the District of Columbia, and after passing a bill through the House this year she’s as close as she’s ever been — but the Senate filibuster stands in her way.
“I would have been for abolishing the filibuster even before there was a statehood bill that passed,” she said.
The statehood push for D.C. and Puerto Rico still must overcome lingering pockets of opposition among Democrats and, in the case of Washington, questions of constitutionality.
Former President Barack Obama in July targeted the filibuster in his eulogy at Rep. John Lewis’ funeral, saying if Democrats wanted to honor the civil rights icon and build upon his legacy then it could be time to scrap the rule.
“If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic in order to secure the God-given right of every American then that is what we should do,” Mr. Obama said.
The irony is that Mr. Obama repeatedly relied on the filibuster when he was in the Senate to throw roadblocks up in front of Republican priorities.
But Mr. Trump’s stance opposing the end of the filibuster is just as ironic. For much of the last four years, he urged the GOP to take the step themselves.
The far left of the Democratic Party has been dreaming big about the change, but Sen. Joe Manchin III threw cold water on the idea last month, saying he wouldn’t support the change if his party flips control of the chamber.
“I want to allay those fears, I want to rest those fears for you right now because when they talk about whether it be packing the courts, or ending the filibuster, I will not vote to do that,” the West Virginia Democrat told Roll Call last month. “I will not vote to pack the courts … and I will not vote to end the filibuster.”
If Mr. Manchin sticks to his word, Democrats’ hopes are sunk.
Even if they win both Georgia seats, they’d emerge with a 50-50 Senate and would have control based on presumptive Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
With Mr. Manchin opposing a filibuster change, likely along with every Republican, there wouldn’t be enough votes to do it.
Neil Sroka, a spokesperson for Democracy for America, said if Democrats don’t do it, Republicans will when given the chance.
“What it will come down is: at the end of the day the choice for whether the filibuster survives the next two years if we have a Democratic majority is going to be in the hands of Republicans because if you have complete intransigence, if you gave [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell his circa 2009 strategy of obstructing everything and giving [Democrats] nothing, then I think the filibuster reform is inevitable.”
Mr. Sroka said Republicans could drive more Democrats to embrace the end of the filibuster if they refuse to cooperate on key issues.
“I don’t think under Joe Biden’s administration you are going to see the filibuster blown up so we can pass Medicare for All, but if Republicans stand in the way of common-sense reform, like background checks [on gun sales] and pathway for ‘Dreamers’ that is when the mask falls and it becomes clear the only path forward is eliminating this arcane rule,” he said.