WASHINGTON – Sen. Tina Smith said Thursday she supports abolishing the Senate filibuster amid growing debate over whether Democrats should throw out the 60-vote threshold now that they control the chamber.
"I believe that the filibuster should be abolished in all cases, not just for any particular piece of legislation," Smith said. "We have already abolished the filibuster for judicial nominations and the Supreme Court, and to me this is a very important step that we need to take in order to make sure that the Senate can function and can do the work that we need to do."
The Minnesota Democrat, who was elected to a full term in the 2020 election after being appointed to replace former Sen. Al Franken, said the issue was "sort of a theoretical" one when Republicans were in the majority. But with Democrats now holding a razor-thin edge by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris' ability to cast a tiebreaking vote, the issue has become more timely, Smith said.
But even with Smith's support, she conceded that Democrats still lack enough support to eliminate the filibuster.
"To be honest, it's not clear to me that there is a majority in the Senate right now that is in favor of getting rid of the filibuster," Smith said.
The filibuster has become a major political flash point in the early days of President Joe Biden's administration, given the expansive policy changes Democrats hope to make now that they have control of the White House and Congress.
Because the filibuster allows the GOP minority to try to block most legislation it opposes, Democrats are using the budget reconciliation process to try to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, meaning the legislation only needs the votes of the 50 Democratic senators and Harris.
On Wednesday night, the Democrat-controlled House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and soon after, the voting and ethics overhaul Democrats named the For the People Act. But even after passing the House, both need at least some GOP support in the Senate to overcome the 60-vote threshold. That's unlikely to happen given the steep GOP resistance to the measures.
Minnesota's GOP House delegation opposed both bills, and former President Donald Trump criticized the House version of the For the People Act as "a disaster" and a "monster," during his Sunday CPAC speech as he called for the further tightening of voting restrictions.
What's at stake in the filibuster discussions also hasn't been lost on Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. She said Thursday night that "something has to change or we're going to be just in this quagmire of not being able to advance legislation," and emphasized that she has already supported filibuster reform.
Klobuchar is a leading driver of the For the People Act on the Senate side. Before the House passed its version Wednesday, she had already announced a hearing in the Senate's Committee on Rules and Administration, which she chairs. The House passed a version of the bill in 2019, months after Democrats won back control of the chamber. But the legislation failed to gain traction in the then-GOP-controlled Senate.
"I've acknowledged there's different ways you could do it," Klobuchar said of filibuster reform. "You can get rid of it, which I support. You can change the numbers needed, which is something that we had talked about in early days, you know, have less numbers, not to get to 60. You can require what we call a talking filibuster, where you have to actually be there and object and speak the whole time."
Fears of further inaction in the Senate despite Democratic control have only added to the filibuster debate.
Smith's stance on what has become a key issue early in the Biden era is playing out against a backdrop of division within her own party over the filibuster.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has maintained his clear resistance to doing away with the filibuster, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
In an explanation on Facebook of her stance, Smith said when she arrived in the Senate she "started out believing that we should keep the filibuster."
"I kept thinking about what would happen, what would stop a conservative president and a conservative Congress from doing terrible damage, for example, to women's health care without the filibuster," Smith said. "But the more I've thought about this, the more I realized that the filibuster has long been the enemy of progress."
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559