Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, spent the past four years referring to the US Senate as a “legislative graveyard”, where her party’s proposals on everything from gun control to policing reform went to die.
Many Democratic supporters had hoped those days were over after the party won control of the upper chamber of Congress earlier this year and removed Republican Mitch McConnell — who became known as the “grim reaper” — from his role as Senate majority leader.
But now, less than two months into President Joe Biden’s administration, progressives are warning that their legislative dreams will once again perish at the hands of Republicans unless the president and moderate Democrats heed their calls to scrap an arcane Senate procedure known as the filibuster.
The filibuster effectively requires a supermajority of 60 senators in the 100-member chamber to sign off on most pieces of legislation. Because the Senate is currently split 50-50, Democrats therefore need at least 10 Republicans to approve nearly all of their bills if they are to become law.
The impossible arithmetic at a time of heightened partisanship has galvanised progressives who want to pressure both the White House and a handful of moderate Democratic lawmakers — especially Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — to get rid of the filibuster altogether.
Their calls became louder this week after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour could not be pushed through by a simple majority as part of Biden’s proposed $1.9tn coronavirus relief package.
“The piece in front of us right now is the minimum wage. But the piece that is coming up is the Voting Rights Act, and the piece after that is immigration reform, and another piece is universal child care,” Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, said at a press conference this week.
“If we want to deliver on our promises, we have got to be willing to get out there and fight for it, and that starts with getting rid of the filibuster,” she added.
Tré Easton, a former Senate staffer now working with the progressive group Battle Born Collective, said: “After we get past this Covid relief package, there is just a litany of things that have to get done . . . and the biggest impediment to that is going to be the filibuster.”
He added: “All roads lead to it, and I think we can sort of whistle past the graveyard for a little while, but the rubber has to meet the road.”
Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, who prides himself on working with Republicans, has said repeatedly that he has no interest in getting rid of the convention.
In a pointed exchange with a reporter this week, he bristled when asked whether he had changed his mind, saying: “Never! Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?”
But that has not discouraged progressive activists like Corbin Trent, a former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has set up the “No Excuses” political action committee to run targeted ads against Manchin and Sinema.
The PAC has paid for advertising campaigns in West Virginia and Arizona that encourage constituents to call on their elected officials to scrap the filibuster.
“Our goal right now is to make sure that the folks in West Virginia and Arizona know that Manchin and Sinema are protecting antiquated Senate rules at the expense of people that live in West Virginia and Arizona,” Trent said. “There are no excuses now. Democrats have the House, the Senate and the White House. People don’t care how big the minority is, or how big the majority is.”
Neither Manchin nor Sinema will be up for re-election until 2024, meaning the threat of losing at the ballot box is unlikely to motivate them in the short term. But activists insist they can still apply political pressure.
“They are not up for re-election, but that does not mean that they can’t hear from their constituents, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be pressured,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of Women’s March.
“The case to be made for Joe Manchin is there are certain things that the Democratic party has promised that are worth more than bipartisanship,” said Sean McElwee of progressive pollster Data for Progress.
“The fundamental sanctity of the right to vote, the fundamental reality that America should have a living wage, I think those are both more important than the filibuster,” he added.
At the same time, progressives are increasing the pressure on Biden and the White House to support their cause.
Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years before becoming vice-president, had as recently as last year opposed ending the filibuster. And Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, has repeatedly refused to answer nearly daily questions about where the president stands on the issue.
But on the campaign trail last summer, Biden suggested he was open to the idea, saying “it’s going to depend on how obstreperous [Republicans] become . . . but I think you are going to just have to take a look at it”.
Those remarks have raised the hopes of many progressives who are already emboldened by outreach they have received from the White House and Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, in particular.
“I think it is going to come down to President Biden exerting presidential leadership and bringing Democrats in the Senate, especially, along,” said Easton from the Battle Born Collective. “This is President Biden’s agenda, and he should want to aggressively pursue it.”
Others are more sceptical.
“At some point everyone is going to realise Ron Klain’s job is to keep you quiet and keep you satisfied without doing anything by bringing you to sit at the table,” said Trent, the former Sanders adviser. “But it actually turns out it is a pretend table. It is not the real table.”