Senate candidates differ somewhat on filibuster

Kennedy, Liss-Riordan have had enough; Markey less specific

THE THREE DEMOCRATIC contenders for US Senate may not differ significantly on most major issues, but on the practical question of how to accomplish their legislative goals there is some daylight between them.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III and labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan favor doing away with the requirement that 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster, while Sen. Ed Markey has traditionally supported retaining the existing system. When pressed, Markey acknowledged the difficulty the current filibuster rules have caused and said eliminating the filibuster should be among a number of items on the table if the Democrats take control of the Senate and the White House.

Filibustering is a way of blocking a bill from coming up for a vote using delaying tactics or nonstop debate. The practice dates to the 1850s, and the only way to stop it is through a process called cloture, which requires three-fifths of the Senate – or 60 members — to vote to end a filibuster. (There is one other way of invoking cloture, referred to as the “nuclear option,” but it’s rarely used.)

Filibusters and cloture were rarely invoked until the last decade. But now filibusters have become a major roadblock for any controversial piece of legislation. Most legislation in the US Senate needs to meet the 60-vote threshold – and that’s hard.

In September, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the supermajority requirement associated with cloture is the reason why a universal background check gun bill hasn’t been passed into law.

“We have a Congress that is beholden to the gun industry,” Warren said during a debate in Houston. “And unless we’re willing to address that head-on and roll back the filibuster, we’re not going to get anything done on guns. I was in the United States Senate when 54 senators said, ‘Let’s do background checks; let’s get rid of assault weapons,’ and with 54 senators, it failed because of the filibuster.”

Kennedy has adopted the same position as Warren, his former law school professor. Last week, on the Horse Race podcast produced by the MassINC Polling Group, he said the Green New Deal legislation, which is sponsored by Markey and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , is never going to pass unless the filibuster is reined in more easily.

“Even if you flip the Senate, you’re not going to get 60 votes for it. You’re going to have to dive into aspects of structural change I’ve been calling out in the past two weeks,” Kennedy said. He added that the elimination of the filibuster is something that needs to be done “to deliver on the promise of climate [policy].”

Liss-Riordan takes the identical position. “The filibuster is undemocratic and should be a thing of the past,” she said. “In order to accomplish anything in the way of progress for working people, we need to get rid of the obstacle that is the filibuster in the Senate.”

Markey, however, has historically favored the filibuster and what’s known as the 60-vote majority.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

In February, Markey was asked by a New Yorker reporter if Democrats should eliminate the filibuster in order to pass the Green New Deal. Markey said that he expected the bill to pass with the three-fifths requirement and Republican votes. But that never happened. He later told the same reporter that other legislative options to pass the hallmark climate bill were on the table. This was all more than a month before Republican Senators forced a fast vote on the Green New Deal with no hearing or debate, throwing the legislation into a tailspin.

After a week of pressing his office, Markey released a statement that expressed opposition to the filibuster, but stopped short of saying he wants to eliminate it. He said the debate to eliminate the Senate filibuster is “an important one as the country confronts how we combat the deluge of dark money polluting our democracy and advance the bold and transformational policy we need to make progress….We’ve seen the damage that 51 Republican votes can do to the Supreme Court, the tax code, and the environment.”