Democrats risk boxing themselves in on filibuster in 2024: Sources

"I just see a lot of danger here," one Democrat said.

June 5, 2024, 4:03 PM

Nearly every Democrat running in a competitive 2024 Senate race this year has backed reforming or abolishing the chamber's filibuster. But Republicans are knocking at the door of their own Senate majority next year -- leaving some Democrats eyeing the 60-vote rule as a key tool to block an agenda anathema to them.

Democratic operatives and Capitol Hill hands told ABC News that candidates risk boxing themselves in on the filibuster amid liberal handwringing that a possible GOP Senate majority next year would push restrictions on abortion, voting rights and more, with nothing other than the arcane rule stopping them if Republicans win a trifecta in Washington this November.

The 60-vote threshold, a procedural rule requiring a supermajority to start or end debate on most legislation before a final vote, has long been hailed as a way to encourage bipartisanship in an increasingly bitter Senate. Over the years, though, both parties have chipped away at when they have had the majority to make it easier to achieve their priorities: Democrats eliminated it for votes on federal district and circuit court nominees, and Republicans abolished it for Supreme Court picks in 2017.

And while outgoing Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and his would-be successors have all backed keeping the what's left of the filibuster intact, Democrats are less than willing to take them at their word.

"I hope that everyone is going in eyes wide open and recognizing that it is just as likely if not more likely that Republicans will be running the Senate next Congress. And even if that doesn't happen, even if we pull a rabbit out of a hat yet again and maintain Democratic control of the Senate, it will come eventually," said John LaBombard, a former aide to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., two filibuster defenders.

"And it's not going to be Mitch McConnell [as leader]. It might wind up in a more extreme Republican leader who has more extreme legislation on the floor and be less interested in protecting the filibuster as a tool of consensus building in the body. So, I just see a lot of danger here."

PHOTO: U.S. Senate Votes On Amendments To Inflation Reduction Act Over The Weekend
The United States Capitol is seen on Capitol Hill on Aug. 6, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images, FILE

The worries are heightened this year by the 2024 Senate map, which has Democrats defending seats in red and purple states such as Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and more. Republicans, meanwhile, aren't defending any particularly vulnerable incumbents.

Yet despite the looming prospect of a change in power in the Senate next year, Democratic candidates are rallying against the filibuster.

Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is running for Michigan's open Senate seat, has said she's "loud and proud on reforming the filibuster." Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Democrat fighting for his political life in Ohio, supports ending the filibuster, with a particular focus on the PRO Act, a pro-labor bill. Angela Alsobrooks, running against popular former two-term GOP Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland, said last month she'd "vote to abolish the filibuster."

And a host of other candidates support policy carveouts on the filibuster, meaning the 60-vote rule would remain largely intact except for bills Democrats would hope to pass on issues such as codifying abortion access.

Tester, the Senate's most endangered member, opposes eliminating the filibuster and hasn't voted to do so. He has voiced support for instituting a "talking filibuster," or requiring bill opponents to hold the Senate floor to voice their objections as a means of blocking passage. He voted in 2022 to impose such a rule to help pass a pair of voting rights bills, an effort that failed.

Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, during a hearing in Washington, D,C., May 8, 2024.
Allison Robbert/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

That spree of support for reform or abolition is something that some operatives warned Republicans could take advantage of in a future GOP Senate majority.

"I do worry about the potential precedent this sets and makes it easier for Republicans to have fewer guardrail when they have the Senate majority," one Democratic pollster said.

"I think you would be able to point to all these people, now that the shoes on the other foot, and make it a hypocrisy argument and highlight how 'these Democrats supported it when they were the majority, but now that they don't have the power, they're suddenly against it.'"

Republican leaders have sought to allay concerns over their plans for the filibuster, arguing they're in no rush to completely scrap the rule.

McConnell has said he supports keeping it in place for most legislation, and the offices of Sens. John Cornyn, Rick Scott, and John Thune -- the three lawmakers vying to replace him as party leader -- confirmed to ABC News that they agree.

However, Democrats expressed skepticism the GOP would hold the line, pointing to former President Donald Trump's repeated pleas to gut the filibuster when he was president and his ongoing sway over congressional Republicans.

Trump's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what the former president thinks about the filibuster now.

And next year, Republicans' agenda could include items like a 15-week abortion ban, which was proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, voting restrictions, a clampdown on immigration and more -- all of which Democrats would be powerless to stop if Republicans control the White House, House of Representatives and a filibuster-less Senate.

"It can absolutely come back and bite you in the ass if the other side decides that they're going to pull a fast one," said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Nevertheless, Democrats explained to ABC News that the messaging could offer candidates a chance to communicate on issues dear to the base.

"It's a vehicle to say, 'I'm supporting choice, I'm supporting democracy. And so, if you elect me to the Senate, I will be a pro-choice or I will be a pro-democracy senator, and this is just one clear way that I will cast my vote to do that,'" said one Democratic Senate aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "It makes sense for them to take that position so that they continue to beat the drum on those issues that are front and center."

The aide also poured cold water on the prospect that, when push comes to shove, there would actually be 50 votes in a Democratic majority to alter the filibuster, given past rumblings from moderates about changing the rule.

And other Democrats swatted away worries candidates were playing themselves into a catch-22, noting the time-honored Washington tradition of lawmakers going back on their word and the vast differences between the policies Democrats would pursue without a filibuster and the ones Republicans would push.

"I do think that there are cul-de-sacs with these debates, but there's a way out. For every 100 people who got elected promising term limits and to serve only 12 years, 98 lied, and two of them did it. So, I just think there's a way out," said Jim Kessler, the co-founder of Third Way, a center-left think tank, and a former aide to now-Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

"Let's just say you're one of the activist organizations that's pushing for it, and Donald Trump wins, and Republicans have the trifecta, and there's a vote to get rid of the filibuster. They're not going to punish you because you didn't vote for it because they're gonna be absolutely petrified about what Donald Trump's gonna do with it," Kessler added.

Yet even if Democrats could get away with possible inconsistency on the filibuster, defenders of the rule lamented the message some candidates are sending.

"One of the unfortunate realities of politics today is that consistency in one's policy views is no longer the virtue that I think it once was," LaBombard said. "All of these things that are extremely distasteful, dangerous policies to us, if those folks are ideologically consistent, they will be siding with a potential future Republican majority leader to make those kinds of policies easier to pass."