WASHINGTON – Sen. Amy Klobuchar has long prized bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized Washington, but the Minnesota Democrat is ready to get rid of a Senate rule that has guaranteed both parties influence on most major pieces of legislation.
Calling the filibuster "an archaic procedure that's standing in the way," Klobuchar is among the Senate Democrats willing to scrap it as they push to implement President Joe Biden's agenda and other policy goals. Senate Republicans have promised an intense counter if Democrats, who control the 100-member Senate by a single tiebreaking vote from the vice president, follow through.
"It got more and more abused over time," Klobuchar said. Like most senators, Klobuchar's bearing toward the filibuster isn't a direct line. As recently as 2018, referring to a Supreme Court confirmation, she talked about how she "would've liked to see 60 votes, no matter what the judge is."
The approval of 60 senators is normally needed to overcome a legislative filibuster, which has historically given the minority party power to block most bills supported only by the majority. That means if it stays in place, Democrats are likely to lack the support needed to pass priorities on voting rights and police reform. The filibuster debate may turn out to be moot, however, given that Senate Democrats still lack the votes needed among their own members to roll back the rule. And even if they eventually make the change, getting 50 Democratic votes on legislation remains a challenge.
"We've done nothing to meet the moments of our time," Klobuchar said, adding she would "continue to work across the aisle. I do that so well, and that's not going to change. But I think doing nothing is not the way to foster working across the aisle."
That approach comes amid recent warnings from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In a floor speech last month, the Kentucky Republican said that "nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched earth Senate would look like," as he described the Senate GOP's response if Democrats scrap the filibuster.
Both parties had a hand in ending the 60-vote standard on presidential nominees. Democrats, in the majority in 2013, did so for all but Supreme Court nominees. Republicans criticized that step, but in 2017 they used their majority to lift it for Supreme Court nominees. McConnell never went along when former President Donald Trump pushed to ditch it altogether.
The filibuster creates "an incentive for the minority to just be a no, to not give any reasonable bipartisan compromise efforts, because you know that you can effectively stop it," said Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University. That means the majority party can be warded off from putting major legislation on the floor by the very threat of the filibuster.
It's "politically rational that she's for the filibuster when it benefits her, she's against it when it doesn't," Burgat said of Klobuchar. "And that's not an uncommon position, given the small majorities within the Senate."
Klobuchar said she "was very clear in the presidential campaign that I wanted reform." And a Washington Post survey of 2020 candidates described her as "open to eliminating the filibuster." Klobuchar is also supportive of other reforms to the filibuster in an effort to make progress on Democrats' goals. Some of Klobuchar's Democratic colleagues are on board with limiting the filibuster's use or getting rid of it altogether. Sen. Tina Smith, a fellow Minnesota Democrat, publicly shifted on the issue last month. When she arrived in the Senate back in 2018, Smith said, the filibuster "was the way the Senate worked."
"And I accepted that that was a rule of the Senate," she said. "The longer I served in the Senate, the more I stopped accepting that that rule had to stand."
Klobuchar first was elected to the Senate in 2006, saying she "rode in on ethics reform." Early in her Senate career, Klobuchar said she supported "looking at changes" to the filibuster. In January 2011, she backed filibuster reform that included an emphasis on the "talking" filibuster instead of the less cumbersome practice the chamber now follows. Klobuchar supported the 2013 move by former Sen. Harry Reid, then the majority leader, to lower the 60-vote threshold to a simple majority for presidential nominations except for the Supreme Court. That came as Democrats decried obstruction from the GOP on nominees made by then-President Barack Obama.
Republicans extended it to the Supreme Court in 2017 as Democrats tried to block the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Klobuchar opposed that decision. In September 2018 on "Meet the Press," Klobuchar said "I would've liked to see 60 votes, no matter what the judge is." Pressed further, Klobuchar added: "We are where we are, and now, I don't think anyone's going to want to hamstring themselves." Asked recently about the exchange, Klobuchar said: "It's over. The decision was made."
In April 2017, Klobuchar was among 61 Republican and Democratic senators who signed a letter in response to the GOP-backed shift on Supreme Court nominees that pushed legislative leaders "to preserve the 60 vote threshold for legislation," according to a news release at the time from Republican Sen. Susan Collins.
"If you look at the language of that letter, it's really about getting things done," Klobuchar said during an interview last week. "And the problem is, and why I don't like the word evolve, why I've gotten to this point after a long journey of focus really on reform from the very beginning I got to the Senate, is that we are not able to get major things done anymore unless there's a crisis."
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559