Senate Republicans are adamant that Chuck Schumer is maneuvering toward one endgame: Killing the filibuster.
But Schumer’s own Democratic colleagues aren’t as confident.
“I don’t think he personally wants to change the rules. But we’ve never had a conversation about this in caucus. And we need to have one,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a skeptic on eliminating the filibuster. “I think Chuck would rather find a way to make this place work together.”
The Senate majority leader is vowing to call up bills on voting rights and gun control that lack sufficient GOP support, steering the chamber toward a partisan collision over the 60-vote threshold needed to pass most legislation. Senators are starting a flurry of bipartisan talks to gauge whether any of their deadlocks on minimum wage, infrastructure and immigration can be broken. But ultimately it's Schumer who will have to decide whether to make a final push to toss the filibuster for a simple majority to rule the upper chamber, or to rely on his deal-making centrists to produce legislation that can actually pass with 10 GOP votes.
Schumer has not said that he personally supports killing the filibuster but has promised to not let the GOP stand in the way of “bold” legislation from Democrats. Many progressives are pushing for him to use the party’s sweeping voting rights bill as the pretext to gut the 60-vote threshold, but that plan has two problems: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposes the voting bill as written, and Manchin is one of several Democrats who don’t support ending the filibuster.
Though getting his caucus on board to invoke the “nuclear option" won't be easy if he tries to, Schumer is refusing to disarm unilaterally. Announcing an aggressive agenda on Thursday, he declared that “everything is on the table” and “failure is not an option.”
Republicans hear rhetoric like that and predict Schumer is headed down the path of his predecessor as Democratic leader, former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who squashed the filibuster for most nominees after Republicans blocked judicial picks.
“I think [Schumer] wants a permanent partisan majority. I really do,” said GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “He would change it.”
The reality is more complicated. Schumer is an expert at channeling the feelings of his caucus, and Democratic senators have no clear agreement on the topic. A source close to Schumer said that “when he says they’ll have a discussion as a caucus and everything is on the table, he means it.”
Schumer also must work in harmony with President Joe Biden, who said Thursday he’s open to changing the filibuster if Republicans abuse the maneuver to block his agenda. But Biden dodged the question of whether to keep the 60-vote requirement.
Some Democrats are reading Schumer’s pledge to let nothing stand in the way of the Democratic agenda as a sign that he’s open to changing the filibuster: "I think it's going to mean we're going to have to go and do filibuster reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
Hirono is among the growing number of Democrats calling to nuke the filibuster, but several other senators aren’t there yet. The pro-reform camp isn't letting the issue drop, though: One Democratic senator said the topic comes up in “one of out of every three conversations up on the floor,” adding that colleagues are using the caucus’ private email chain to push for a full 50-member discussion about it.
While Schumer isn’t showing his hand, he told progressive groups last week that he plans to bring the voting rights bill to the floor and expects Republicans to block it, according to a source on that call. He said he would then bring the issue to his caucus and try to find a solution.
Schumer is also encouraging progressive and pro-democracy groups to exert external pressure for passing the voting bill.
The majority leader plans to hold additional votes on other bills that will demonstrate the breadth of GOP opposition. But if Schumer's goal is changing Manchin's mind, “it’s an ill-conceived strategy,” said a second Senate Democrat.
“Bluntly, these bills don’t have 50 votes,” the senator said. “Eventually some guy named Joe from West Virginia is going to get sick of, week after week, being pilloried as the barrier for progress. And then the question is: What does he do? He’s a pretty stubborn guy.”
Manchin said in an interview that he hasn’t had a single specific conversation with Schumer about the filibuster and has “no idea” what his leader personally wants. He added that Schumer hasn’t tried to lobby him to change his mind.
“We’ve had a good enough relationship. I’m sure I frustrate him at times. But the bottom line is, he’s very respectful,” Manchin said. “He’d like to be able to do what he wants to do. And I say: ‘Chuck, then go through the regular process. Let’s try the process before we even talk about anything else.’”
At the moment, the process is moving and will soon test if there’s any bipartisan will in the Senate to work on Biden’s agenda. A bipartisan group of 20 senators is trying to prove the chamber can function, a smaller group is focusing on immigration, and a third group of Democratic senators is trying to come to an agreement on raising the minimum wage.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that before having a conversation about the filibuster, Democrats should first decide on legislation that can receive support from the entire caucus, and then reach out to Republicans. Among the issues that don’t have caucus unanimity are minimum wage, voting rights and background checks for gun buyers.
“If you can get 50 out of 50 votes, because of who our caucus is, it’s going to be pretty reasonable,” Kaine said. “But if on those things that are reasonable and popular we can’t get Republican votes, then you have to have the discussion about filibuster reform.”
Although Schumer has managed to keep his caucus together so far on tough votes, he tends to defer to his members when they have an internal dispute. Last year, when then-Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) battled Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) over the Judiciary Committee gavel, Schumer declined to take sides and instead left it up to senators to vote on the issue in a secret ballot.
Republicans tried to pressure Schumer on the filibuster at the start of the Congress, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called for him to commit to keeping the 60-vote threshold as part of the organizing resolution for the 50-50 Senate. But Democrats rejected that proposal, and McConnell agreed to move forward, but only after both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) publicly restated their support for preserving 60 votes for passage of most bills.
Still, Republicans remain suspicious of the new majority leader. They say he’s ruthless and if he can kill the filibuster, he will.
“He’s predisposed to grab power when he can. He wants you to work with him when we’re in power and keep the Senate stable,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has teamed up with Schumer on immigration.
“And when he’s in power," Graham continued, "he becomes a pretty disruptive force.”