Republicans in Arizona are hoping to overturn their state’s presidential election result, creating a template that they can apply in Georgia, Wisconsin, and beyond. Meanwhile Sen. Mitch McConnell (to no one’s surprise) is making it clear that no Democratic policy objective is going to make it past his filibuster. Does a strategy of legislative obstruction and retroactive electioneering hold any promise for the party? Activist Lauren Windsor and former Senate staffer Eli Zupnick join Ryan Grim to discuss.
Ryan Grim: This is Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer filed cloture on a motion to proceed to debate the creation of a commission to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol.
Sen. Chuck Schumer: There is an obvious and urgent need to establish such a commission. I shouldn’t need to remind this Chamber of the scene on January 6. We were all there.
RG: It’s the filibuster that makes that parliamentary rigmarole so necessary. A cloture motion is intended to break a filibuster, and under the current rules, it needs 60 votes. The Democratic Caucus has 50 members in it and only Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney have said that they support creating the commission; Susan Collins has said she’s open to it.
In the House, GOP leadership urged party members to oppose it and only 35 Republicans ended up voting for it.
Rep. Tim Ryan: The other 90 percent of our friends on the other side of the aisle, holy cow. We have people scaling the Capitol, hitting the Capitol Police with lead pipes across the head, and we can’t get bipartisanship. What else has to happen in this country? We need two political parties in this country that are both living in reality, and you ain’t one of them.
RG: If that same proportion held in the Senate, that’d add up to about 8 Republicans, not enough to beat back a filibuster. And Mitch McConnell is dead set against it.
Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: House Democrats have handled this proposal in partisan, bad faith, going right back to the beginning.
RG: When Joe Manchin was asked about McConnell’s obstruction, he told reporters it was, “So disheartening. It makes you really concerned about our country.” He was asked if it counted as abuse of the filibuster, and said, “I’m still praying we’ve still got 10 good, solid patriots within that conference.”
A few days later, he teamed up with Kyrsten Sinema to release a public statement begging Republicans not to filibuster the commission: “In the hours and days following the attack,” the pair wrote, “Republican and Democratic members of Congress condemned the violence and vowed to hold those responsible accountable so our Democracy will never experience an attack like this again. We implore our Senate Republican colleagues to work with us to find a path forward on a commission to examine the events of January 6.”
Manchin was asked if he’d support reforming the filibuster if the pleading fell on deaf ears. “No,” he said. “I can’t take the fallout.”
McConnell responded as you’d expect, by digging in and being even more direct about why he’s opposing the commission.
On Tuesday at a press conference, he said he’s worried the commission would make the ransacking of the Capitol an issue in the 2022 midterms, and of course he doesn’t want that:
MM: They would like to continue to litigate the former president into the future. We think the American people, going forward, and in the fall of ’22, ought to focus on what this administration is doing to the country.
RG: Manchin called those comments “extremely frustrating and disturbing,” though not so disturbing that he plans to do anything about it just yet.
Later in the show, we’ll talk with Eli Zupnik, a former senior Senate staffer who now runs a coalition dedicated to reforming the filibuster. The fight over the commission won’t be the last time the filibuster gets put on the chopping block, and even if it survives this time, there’s reason to believe it could be a goner in a few weeks or months, no matter what Manchin is saying now.
But first, it’s worth exploring the incredible asymmetry at work right now. On the one hand, Democrats have a bill called H.R.1, the For the People Act, that would ban gerrymandering and override Republican voter suppression laws. We did an episode on it back in February. It has 49 cosponsors, only missing Manchin, and even he co-sponsored it last session. Getting rid of the filibuster would be enough to pass it, as it’s already gone through the House.
But forget H.R.1; Democrats can’t even create a commission to investigate January 6. Meanwhile, Republicans in Georgia, Texas, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and elsewhere are moving quickly to change voting laws so that even if their agenda doesn’t become any more popular, they will still take control of the House of Representatives in 2022, along with the Senate. That will put them in a position to rig the 2024 election. To do that, they need to set the groundwork with their base that 2020 was stolen, justifying payback next time. They’ve been doing that for months, and an audit of the vote going on in Arizona is ground zero for that propaganda effort.
Lauren Windsor is a progressive activist and executive producer for “The Undercurrent,” and she specializes in getting candid comments out of Republican politicians. During the Georgia runoff, she made news multiple times. Here she is talking to Sen. Tommy Tuberville as he was campaigning in Georgia, with Lauren posed as a Republican voter.
Lauren Windsor: Are you going to fight to make this election right?
Sen. Tommy Tuberville: Well, you see what’s coming. You’ve been reading about it in the House. We’re gonna have to do it in the Senate.
LW: I’m sorry?
RG: Tuberville’s saying: “You see what’s coming. You’ve been reading about it in the House. We’re gonna have to do it in the Senate.” This was mid-December, and the “it” that he’s talking about was preventing the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory on January 6.
Trump retweeted the video and thanked Tuberville. Two days later, Windsor spoke to Georgia Sen. David Perdue, again posing as a Republican voter. Perdue told her he’d join in the challenge as well. Trump celebrated it again.
This past week, she was in Arizona, where Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, and Marjorie Taylor Greene were holding a rally to support the ongoing audit of the vote in Arizona. The so-called audit is at least the third effort by Republicans to overturn the vote in Arizona, and they’ve absurdly turned it over to a company run by an avid Trump supporter. This is happening while the Arizona legislature is working to strip authority from the Democratic secretary of state. They have no intention of allowing Democrats to win again, even if they win. Lauren talked to Gaetz, Gosar, and Greene, and they laid out for her what their plan is next.
Lauren joins us now to talk about what she learned.
RG: Lauren Windsor, welcome to Deconstructed.
LW: Thanks for having me, Ryan.
RG: So can you tell us a little bit about your method, and maybe use your Ted Cruz snippet as an example?
LW: So I went to the rally with a videographer named Pete and we looked like your average Trump supporters, wearing a Trump MAGA hat. We waited for the picture-taking lines. And as Sen. Cruz was moving towards me, I lunged in to get pictures with him. And used the opportunity of getting the picture to ask him some questions. And Pete was holding the camera, and rather than taking a picture, was shooting video.
[Clip of Lauren Windsor talking to Sen. Ted Cruz.]
RG: The clip is hard to hear because they’re blaring AC/DC in the background, but you asked him why he didn’t, “do more” to stop the certification of the election. And he says: Look, I led the fight to stop the certification in the Senate, but we were voted down.
Do you ever get comments on your Southern accent? What do people think of it? And where did you develop that?
LW: Well, I grew up in Nashville. So, I was born in Arkansas. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and I don’t think that I have a really [laughs] overwhelming Southern accent in current usage. I’ve lived outside of the state a lot. But I say y’all. I turn it up, obviously, several degrees for whenever I’m talking to Republicans. They seem to gravitate towards Southern accents.
RG: Right. And so you kind of became connected with January 6 in interesting ways. First, you found Tommy Tuberville in Georgia. Were you surprised by your interaction with him?
LW: I really wasn’t. This was in the air, at the time. Congressman Mo Brooks and more of the extremists Republicans in the House had been making a lot of noise about challenging the Electoral College.
Rep. Mo Brooks: It is my duty on the United States Constitution on January 6, if they’re required, one senator will join me to object to and later vote to reject Electoral College vote submissions [fades out] —
LW: And in the DC press, it was like well, they’re still looking for somebody on the Senate side to do this. So when we’re going to these rallies in Georgia, it’s all around Atlanta, outside of Atlanta, and they’re all talking about continuing to fight for Trump. And kind of like winking at the, you know, we still have options rhetoric.
And so Madison Cawthorn, a young congressman, specifically said during this rally, “We still have cards left on the table to play.” And so given that, then-Sen.-Elect Tuberville was speaking and saying that we needed to continue to fight for President Trump, I thought if he’s on board, if there’s no cards on the table, he’s going to be a likely candidate for being the person on the Senate-side to do that.
I didn’t know that he would be that forthcoming.
LW: Are you gonna fight to make this election right?
LW: Are you gonna fight to make this election right?
TT: We’re gonna fight hard.
LW: What can y’all do on January 6? Madison said y’all had tricks up your sleeve.
TT: Just wait. Well, you see what’s coming. You’ve been reading about it in the House.
LW: Obviously, it was a more wink-wink sort of thing, because he didn’t actually say: I will do it. “We need to do it on the Senate side.”
RG: Did you ever feel you were kind of doing Mo Brooks work for him? How did you feel about that?
LW: Well, there was some degree of pushback from activists on the ground in Georgia saying the reporting is exciting Republican-base voters. And my thought about the reporting was: I need to expose that this is happening so that we can be prepared for January 6, be prepared for what’s coming so that it’s not a shock to anybody. But it really set off sort of a snowball effect, because once we have a Sen.-Elect Tuberville saying, “We need to do this in the Senate,” wink wink, I will likely be the person to challenge the Electoral College. Then I talked to David Perdue a couple days later, and even though he technically could not do it because his term was up, like he wouldn’t have been in the Senate on January 6, he said that he, too, would challenge the Electoral College.
And so those two stories got out into the ether. And the Tuberville thing already was very — Trump picked up on really quickly and started a huge pressure campaign on social media. And with the Perdue story, it got even more heated and Trump actually retweeted both of those stories. And so I think because of Trump jumping into the fray, and pressuring both of these legislators to do this, then Josh Hawley sees that and he’s like: Well, damn, if I’m gonna let these to steal the spotlight. And of course, because Ted Cruz can’t let anybody steal the spotlight, then Ted Cruz jumped into the fray. So it really snowballed after the Tuberville story.
RG: And the irony, of course, is that the Capitol Police were not prepared. It’s true that the media, that everybody knew that there was going to be this massive demonstration fueled by anger on January 6, but the Capitol was no more defended than on a normal day of the week. What do you think accounts for that?
LW: Well, I do want to make clear, though, that in terms of my reporting and making sure that people knew what was going to happen on January 6, I also saw this as something that the voters of Georgia needed to know before going to the polls that they had legislators that were actively campaigning on overturning the will of Georgia voters.
RG: And I do think that given the very slim margins that both Ossoff and Warnock won by that it’s not unfair to say that a significant contributor to them winning was some voters being disgusted at their Republican senators aligning themselves with this attempt to overturn the election. I mean, having been on the ground, is that your sense?
LW: No, I definitely agree with that, because they desperately wanted to talk about anything but being pressured to overturn democratically held elections. That was the narrative that they were stuck on was: Are you going to fight for Trump? Are you going to overturn this democratically held election?
The voters of Georgia voted for Joe Biden as there’s still a percentage of the Republican Party that wants to say that it was stolen. And I don’t think people, at the end of the day, like that. You cannot overturn democratically held elections and think that people aren’t going to notice and come out to the polls and react. And I just, I felt like that was just critical information that voters needed to know before handing control of the Senate back to Mitch McConnell and the Republicans.
RG: And Loeffler in particular seemed to want to run away from it. She actually didn’t, if you remember, say what she would do on January 6 until Trump came down to campaign for her and she was faced with the possibility of him on stage denouncing her. Had you been able to get to her beforehand?
LW: There were a few different strands of questioning that we were trying to get answers on. And with her in particular, there were the insider trading issues. And so I did get to her on that. But one of her communications aides stepped in the way before she could answer. And it’s: Why are you denying Covid relief to the people of Georgia? Why are you holding this up while, at the same time, you’re benefiting from that inside information, selling your stocks back in January/February of 2020?
RG: Right. So fast forward to today: You’ve stayed on this beat and you were in Arizona last week. For people who have been trying to ignore this bizarre audit that is going on in Arizona. Can you give us a little primer on what the heck Republicans are doing there?
LW: So in terms of Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, it’s keeping this fringe element of Republicans excitable, and fighting, and donating money and we can discuss what ulterior motives Matt Gaetz might have given all of his personal stuff that’s going on, in terms of the sex trafficking allegations, needing a distraction from that. But these Trump Republicans need to be seen as continuing to fight for Trump, not just with their voters, but with Trump himself. And so a lot of this is self preservation.
I mean, Marjorie Taylor Greene was kicked off all of her committees. She won last cycle, but she also didn’t have an opponent, and she’s gonna have a very hard time going in this next election given her notoriety at this point.
They have their own personal motives. But as far as the short-term strategy goes, continuing to fan those flames works for them in the long term. I don’t think that it works that well, because I think people are tired of the divisiveness of that wing of the party.
And what exactly are Arizona Republicans doing? Like, what is this audit?
LW: Well so this was sanctioned by the state legislature, they handed off to a private company — I believe it’s called Cyber Ninjas — that doesn’t even have experience running election audits, and handing off election integrity function of government to a private company that’s been aligned with Trumpist Republicans, it would be amusing if it weren’t so destructive to the fabric of our civil discourse and integrity of our elections, because this is going to have major ramifications if the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party is successful in making this happen in all of the states that Rep. Paul Gosar named. They’re all states that Trump lost. They don’t really want to audit every state in the country. They only want to audit the states where Trump lost. And they certainly don’t want to audit the congressional elections. It’s only the presidential.
RG: And so, here’s what Rep. Paul Gosar told you.
LW: What are the states where we can launch other audits?
Rep. Paul Gosar: Well, I mean, we could actually do it in every state, because what you’re doing is —
LW: But what are the most important ones, and the ones where we can actually make a difference?
PG: Michigan, Wisconsin —
LW: We have to defend Trump. We have to defend our president.
PG: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona.
RG: What do you take from that?
LW: You notice in his initial response, he’s like, well, we could do it in every state. Like, yeah, we could, but that’s not what he’s really after. They’re gonna say that we need to audit every state just for election integrity purposes, but that’s the veneer of respectability.
RG: Here’s your exchange with Gaetz. You ask him: If Arizona is a launching pad, what’s the next state?
LW: Hey, if Arizona is a launching pad, what’s the next state?
RG: He says, well: “We’re going to Georgia on the 27th.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz: We’re going to Georgia on the 27th.
LW: Oh, my God, thank you so much.
RG: What did you take away from that?
LW: That they’re going to Georgia? [Laughs.] I mean, he didn’t have a whole lot to say. They were keeping him at arm’s length from everyone for obvious reasons. But I think it’s the road show. I think that as long as they can be seen to be continuing to cheerlead for Trump, it distracts from his personal issues and wins him Trump’s allegiance, and makes it so that he has a greater chance of surviving the current headwinds — very strong headwinds that he’s facing. I mean, for a great example here, I guess there was a rally in Florida where somebody flew a plane over the event that said, “Tick Tock Matt Gaetz.”
RG: And do you mean in terms of driving the base out or creating the groundwork for actually overturning future elections?
LW: Well, I think you’ve seen that there’s Trumpist Republicans that believe in the big lie that are running for election official positions. And I do think that there’s an increasing likelihood that we’re just gonna get to a point where Democratic wins won’t be certified if you’re in certain jurisdictions.
RG: Right. Right. Right. And Margarie Taylor Greene was at the Arizona one, right?
LW: She was, yeah. She was there. And I spoke with her, and there’s a clip of her online, too.
RG: That’s right. So what did you take away from your conversation with Marjorie Taylor Greene?
LW: I think she is very dangerous. It’s frustrating that you have someone in a position of power who is a QAnon believer. She denied that she believes in this after a lot of pressure, but clearly still retains that. It’s kind of like a wink-wink like: Oh, yeah, I don’t — I’m not QAnon. What is QAnon? We need to pivot to Antifa!
Well, I asked Marjorie Taylor Greene about pedophile rings. And her response was to say that we need to strengthen police departments. And that’s why Democrats want to defund police.
RG: Oh — interesting. So she’s linking QAnon and the pedophile rings to defund the police movement. And for people who haven’t bothered getting into what specifically QAnon is about, I would recommend they go back and listen to our episode that gets into that, but pedophilia is at the center of it,
Newscaster: A fringe, far-right movement that promotes a conspiracy theory that says essentially, that President Trump’s opponents include a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and cannibals in the highest ranks of our own government.
RG: So that’s fascinating that she’s trying to connect it to defund the police.
LW: Right. And so, I mean, it’s just so harebrained. The fact that that’s gaining traction in the Republican Party. The upward mobility of those ideas versus the rationality of someone like Mitt Romney, or Liz Cheney. I can’t remember prior to the QAnon Congresspeople taking office, anybody thinking that Liz Cheney was some sort of moderate Republican. [Laughs.] And the fact that she’s been booted from leadership in the GOP is shocking. And that more people aren’t talking about that?
And Matt Gaetz said the other day that Lauren Boebert should be Speaker of the House, that she would make a great Speaker of the House. Rep. Lauren Boebert is one of these QAnon electeds from Colorado who wanted to tote a gun onto Capitol grounds.
RG: And is this all a bluff? What have they done in Georgia since Arizona?
LW: What was it? They’ve already recounted the ballots, like, three times in Georgia.
LW: And each time Biden wins! So the judge in Fulton County granted the ballots to be recounted.
In terms of Gaetz and Greene going to Georgia to do this rally, I still just think it’s more motivated by personal preservation. So I don’t think they’re bluffing on going out there to do it. I just have a more cynical view; this is not about winning 2020. This is about winning 2022, and winning 2024, and they’re laying the groundwork for that.
RG: Well, Lauren, thanks so much for joining us.
LW: Thank you. It’s been great, Ryan. I appreciate it.
RG: Good luck out there on the road.
RG: That was Lauren Windsor. So on the one side of the aisle, we have a party either believing its big lie, or pushing it, and working toward fundamentally undermining democracy. On the other side, we have a party ostensibly in power, but afraid to do anything that might tweak the sacredness of Senate Rule 22, which established the hallowed 60-vote threshold for cloture votes.
A coalition of progressive groups called Fix Our Senate has been put together to try to fix that imbalance, and it’s run by former Senate staffer Elly Zupnick.
Elly, welcome to the show.
Elly Zupnick: Great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
RG: Yeah, for sure. So where should we start? When did you decide that the filibuster was the thing that you needed to focus on?
EZ: Sure. So I worked in the Senate for 10 years. I worked for a member of Senate Democratic leadership, Sen. Patty Murray. And what I saw over the years, I started in 2009; I left in 2019. It wasn’t working well in the beginning, when I first got there, but there was a sense that people can still work together and get things done. President Obama came in, and was committed to fixing Washington D.C. and breaking through the gridlock, and using his rhetoric and his bully pulpit to get Republicans to the table to get things done.
What we saw was that McConnell had a very different idea. Sen. McConnell realized that Democrats were in full control of government and the best thing he could do for himself politically and for the Republican Party was do everything he could to make President Obama a liar and make D.C. look as gridlocked and dysfunctional as he could, knowing that voters were not going to blame the minority of senators who were actually creating the gridlock; they were going to blame the party that they thought they just put in power: President Obama, Senate Democrats, House Democrats. That’s what he did. He strung them along on health care, he blocked everything he could.
And it worked for him. They won the house in 2010 — they being Republicans. McConnell took back the Senate in 2014. And he made it very clear that the big lesson he took, his great political innovation, was that the filibuster is the tool that minorities can use to make the majority look bad. That’s it. That’s where the Senate is.
So I saw that firsthand there. They were still able to do things every once in a while, small-budget deals, keeping the government open, things like that. But it became clear that unless one party controlled everything and had 60 votes, there is just no path to a functional Congress anymore. And that’s just not sustainable.
RG: So when you came into this Congress, and you set out a strategy to reform the filibuster on a month-by-month basis, how has the reality mapped against, strategically, how you hoped things would unfold?
EZ: Sure. So everything got scrambled, of course, with Covid. I mean, when President Biden came in, it was very clear that the first thing he had to do was a Covid rescue plan. And it was also very clear, very quickly, that Republicans were not going to be on board to help him, and therefore he was going to do it through reconciliation. So reconciliation, as your listeners, I am sure know, means that Republicans don’t have the filibuster. So we saw Sen. Manchin out there saying he wanted to do a bipartisan Covid rescue bill, he worked, he tried to get that, Republicans brushed his hand away. And he ultimately signed on with a partisan reconciliation bill that only required a simple majority. So that was an encouraging sign right from the start. It wasn’t a filibuster being broken. It wasn’t a change of the rules. But it was a very clear demonstration that Democrats were going to have to go it alone on the big stuff.
I think one thing that I would say has been a little bit different than I expected is that I expected to see some more obstruction sooner. I would say, being honest, I think that I would have expected to see bills coming to the floor a little bit sooner that would have been blocked by Republicans to demonstrate their obstreperousness, as President Biden called it. We know that there are bills coming from the House that could have support.
But, you know, I’m not worried about that just yet. I think what we’re going to see in the next two months, is going to be a real make or break moment for Sen. Schumer and the Democratic Caucus generally. Sen. Schumer said that S.1, the For the People Act, which is of course the big voter protection, anti-gerrymandering, ethics, campaign finance bill that’s critical — that is a must pass bill — is going to come to the Senate floor, he said, before August. And he said failure is not an option.
We’ll talk about this a little bit, I’m sure, but we’re seeing — right now — Republicans are threatening and are expected to filibuster this January 6 commission bill, which is a bipartisan bill to form a bipartisan commission to investigate a literal attack on these Senators’ workplace, and they can’t get 10 Republicans on board with that.
So we’re seeing very clearly that there are not 10 Republicans on board with any kind of voting rights bill, any kind of anti-gerrymandering bill, redistricting bill. And Sen. McConnell said his top priority is defeating the For the People Act. So there is only one path forward: They have to eliminate the filibuster as a tool that he can use to stop everything, or else we’re going to spend the next two years with absolutely no progress on democracy reform, after everything we saw with President Trump and the January 6 insurrection. And I think that that’s inconceivable to most Americans.
RG: Coming into this session, what did you think would be the most effective kind of legislative battering rams to bash against the filibuster? What bills in the House do you think could be demonstrative of that obstreperousness, as Biden called it?
EZ: That’s a good question.
I think we know gun safety, for example. We saw it as one of the examples that is clearest of how the filibuster has been used to stop even bipartisan bills, I think it was 2013, but I may be slightly off on the date. Sen. Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, of course and Sen. Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, worked together on a background check bill that had 90 percent support in the polls — gun background checks. The NRA opposed it, it was filibustered, it got 54 votes in the Senate; would have been signed into law, but for the filibuster. So certainly gun safety is an issue where you can get a majority support in the Senate, but you can be sure that the NRA and their allies in the Senate are going to do everything they can to stop it.
The Dream Act is another one. Raising the minimum wage. Maybe there’s not support for $15 — I don’t know, that’s something that they’re gonna have to work on — but there’s absolutely support for an increase in the minimum wage above the levels that Republicans would allow. Republicans, I think, have a minimum wage bill that has maybe four, five, six Republicans on it, at $11, with an E-verify rider attached to it. They don’t have 10 Republicans for any kind of meaningful minimum wage increase. Democrats ran on that, they support that, they can get 50 votes for it. And that’s the kind of thing that could pass only if the filibuster is eliminated. We saw that that can’t go through reconciliation, sadly, just a few months back.
RG: Do you have a sense of why Schumer has shied away from that strategy?
EZ: I mean, the important thing is when you need 50 votes, when you have 50 Democrats and you need Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema on board, the most important plan is the plan that works, that gets them on board. When I went into this Congress, I assumed that the best path would be to demonstrate that obstreperousness, this, and I think we’re gonna see that when Republicans filibuster as they are expected to do this January 6 Commission, we’re going to see that when they stand up and block S.1. Leader Schumer said that a gun safety bill is going to be coming to the floor soon; he said that a few weeks ago, so we will see it there.
The strategy that is best is the strategy that lets us fix the filibuster and get these bills done, because we are facing an existential crisis right now, when it comes to our democracy. And they need to do something to fix it. So whatever that thing is, that is the thing that we need to focus on.
RG: And just so people know, we’re speaking on Wednesday afternoon and McConnell on Tuesday said that he’s against this commission. And he said he’s specifically against it, because he doesn’t want it to influence the midterms. You know, he couldn’t have been any more direct about it if he had tried. Were you surprised that he’s willing to do this given that it could lead to Democrats getting rid of the filibuster? It seems like he has, so far, where he would have filibustered just for the heck of it, he has kind of backed off and let things move forward so as not to get Democrats worked up about the filibuster. What do you think made him break from that and make this commission his line that he was going to draw?
EZ: I was surprised. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I assumed that Sen. McConnell would be on board with finding a way to get to yes on a bipartisan commission. They negotiated this in the House is fair for Republicans; it is, as some Republican senators have noted, it is better than an alternative partisan investigation for Republicans. They should embrace something like this, where they get a say — certainly better than Republicans treated Secretary Clinton with the Benghazi investigation, where they did it in a very partisan way, even though Democrats got on board and appointed members.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised, because the reality right now is that Sen. McConnell is not in charge. He wants to be in charge. He has power. But, ultimately, he cannot stand up to President Trump or President Trump supporters. He cannot stand up to the big lie. He just weeks ago, or maybe months ago at this point, said that President Trump was morally and practically responsible for what happened on January 6. Of course, he said that in the context of voting against conviction, but he still said that. Now he has backed away, at least rhetorically. He is not talking about President Trump being at fault. He is protecting President Trump. And he is not standing up to the big lie. He is doing what he can to give them cover.
In today’s Republican Party, there is no space, except for the very few members who are sticking to their principles, like Rep. Cheney and Rep. Kinzinger. And in some cases, Sen. Romney, Sen. Murkowski, but it is a very, very small list, and shockingly small in this moment, given what we’re seeing happening across the country and with President Trump.
RG: And so responding to McConnell, Manchin said that he was extremely frustrated and disappointed, disturbed by what McConnell had said, but then he was asked: Well, does this mean that you’re in favor of eliminating or reforming the filibuster? And he said no.
You’ve become an expert over the years, both in the Senate and now in your new organization in kind of Manchin-ology. What have you taken away from parsing Manchin’s responses over the last several days to Republicans, filibustering the commission or threatening to filibuster the commission?
EZ: Yeah. Watching Sen. Manchin’s words, I think, is important. And when he chooses to speak up is important. I think a lot about how as late as February 2, he was saying that he would not be on board with a partisan American Rescue Plan and then, just a few weeks later, after working in good faith with the Republicans, as I mentioned before, he was able to get on board.
The important thing to know about Sen. Manchin is that he truly does want to work in a bipartisan way; agree with him or disagree with him about this being important right now, and of course, I don’t fully agree with him, or I don’t think that that’s the priority right now, but he does. So he needs to exhaust those bipartisan options. And what we are saying is do that very fast, because it’s not happening. There is no way Republicans are getting on board, certainly not 10 republicans with what Sen. McConnell called his top priority to defeat the For the People Act. But he needs to go through a process to truly try — not just to show he’s trying — but to try.
And I saw the statement that he and Sen. Sinema put out as a very positive sign. They didn’t have to put out a statement. They are putting out into the world the fact that they are disappointed, they are putting their hand out to Republicans, we know Republicans are going to swap that hand away. And I don’t think this is going to be the thing that ends the filibuster; I don’t think we’re gonna see an end to the filibuster on the vote when it happens on the January 6 Commission. But I think if Republicans do follow through and filibuster it, it will be a giant step toward reform and add to the frustration of Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema, who stated explicitly that this should be easy. This is a bipartisan bill. If the filibuster is stopping even bipartisan bills, then any case they had for defending it is gonna go out the window.
And I think it’s important to remember that nobody expects Sen. Manchin to say: I was wrong about the filibuster and now I change my mind. Of course, I think he was wrong about the filibuster; many others do. But the expectation and the hope is for Sen. Manchin to look around at the Senate that exists today and say: Even if I thought the filibuster worked before to promote bipartisanship and compromise, it’s clearly not doing that now — something needs to change.
And he could be on the side of making the Senate work, again, delivering results and breaking through the gridlock. And those are things that he talks about in West Virginia. And that’s a very moderate position. There’s nothing inherently progressive about wanting the Senate to work well.
RG: I actually agree with you. I don’t see the commission being the thing that blows up the filibuster, I think it’s possible, either they come to some sort of deal or they backburner it and then they come back to it later. But I think you’re right that it puts a huge chink in the armor of the filibuster.
And what I’ve been eyeing lately is the debt ceiling. And I want to get your take on this. So at the end of July, the debt ceiling agreement that Congress and Trump had worked out expires, and Congress has to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans have said that they will not support lifting the debt ceiling without significant concessions from Democrats. Democrats, scarred from 2011, have said: We’re not giving any concessions, we’re just going to lift the debt ceiling. The only way to resolve that impasse, that I can think of, is to do it by majority vote, and to eliminate the filibuster — reform the filibuster. Where does the debt ceiling play into your own strategic calculations around the filibuster?
EZ: That’s a good question. And I think some of that depends on how the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan negotiations go over the next few weeks and months. Because — this is something that is a little bit obscure — you can add a debt ceiling increase to a reconciliation bill. So it is one of the few things you can do on reconciliation, is increase the debt limit. It’s been done a few times through reconciliation. So they could tack that on to an American Jobs Plan, once they decide to go that route. So it is very much connected to that.
I would say if they don’t move fast enough, or the negotiations drag on too long, and they don’t start a reconciliation process and something happens — if there’s another economic crisis, and the date moves up where the Treasury runs out of borrowing power and hits that debt limit sooner than expected — then this could become a serious issue. And you’re absolutely right, if they can’t do it through reconciliation, it’s hard to see enough responsible Republicans these days to sign on to a debt-limit increase. And there is no way that President Biden, or Leader Schumer, or Speaker Pelosi should give anything to increase the debt limit and allow the government to simply pay its bills, especially when such a big part of that debt increase was from President Trump’s tax cuts.
So I think they’re on solid messaging ground, solid political grounds. The country has been through this before; we saw what happened with the brinkmanship around the debt limit. It doesn’t make any sense. So this could be an issue, but we’ll see how it plays out in the next couple of months.
RG: It does seem unlikely that they’ll get it done before that, but even if they could, why wouldn’t Democrats just be clever and leave it out and use that as a cudgel, then?
EZ: I’m hoping that it doesn’t come to that. I think that it is so important that they take on voting rights and gerrymandering in the next few months. Because if they don’t do it by August, many experts say, they will have missed the window to impact the ’22 elections to make the ’22 elections fair to protect the vote in the ’22 elections. They will have very soon missed the window to protect the decennial redistricting process. That means 10 years of a rigged House without any ability to change that until 2031. That’s too much. Our democracy is in a precarious state right now, to put it mildly. And we cannot allow the ’22 elections to be sabotaged like that, and to have our redistricting process impacted like that.
So I think that is why I am very focused on the For the People Act and the Voting Rights Act, and the need for it to happen very soon — not to help Democrats, not to stack the deck, but to fight back against the voter suppression efforts going on across the country that have been motivated by Trump’s big lie, and to make it fair.
I saw an analysis that shocked me, that scared me that if Sen. Warnock ran in ’20, under the election rules that he may face in ’22 in Georgia, he would have lost. His margin of victory was so narrow that it could be overcome by the way Republicans are working to suppress the vote. That should scare anybody — not just a Democrat, but anyone who cares about our democracy.
RG: And those rules will be in place unless they pass the For the People Act, am I right?
EZ: That’s exactly right, that’s what makes it so critical.
RG: And what’s your read on Manchin’s claim that he can’t do a partisan, party-line democracy reform bill?
EZ: My hope is that he is saying that the same way he said that he can do a partisan American Rescue Plan — that in his mind, this should obviously be a bipartisan bill, a bipartisan issue. And it should be! In a rational world, with a rational Republican Party, you should be able to do a Covid rescue bill that is bipartisan, you should be able to do a voting rights bill that is bipartisan. Not too long ago, the Voting Rights Act sailed through the Senate 98-0, I think, as late as 2004 — though, I could be a couple of years off on that. So it is not unreasonable for him to think that he should be able to get bipartisan results on this. I think at some point that will be very clear — it should be clear now, but it’ll be even more clear that he’s not going to, and that’s when it’s going to really matter. Because when he saw that he was not going to get bipartisan results on the American Rescue Plan, he did the right thing. He fiddled a little bit with it. I think many people think that he made the bill just a little bit worse and that’s not good, of course. But he made a few changes, and then he signed on board. And now checks went out to families. We’re gonna cut child poverty in half, at least in the short-term, with this child tax credit, and many, many other things, vaccinations and all that. So I’m hoping that he goes through the same process when it comes to voting rights.
RG: Right. He is going through that process. He said: Let’s do the John Lewis Act. That ought to be bipartisan, it shouldn’t be hard to find 10 Republicans. And it looks like after spending about a week trying to find some Republicans, he got Lisa Murkowski to sign a letter, but no others, and quickly got shot down by Sen. John Cornyn. Have you gotten a sense that that has affected him?
EZ: I can’t read his mind. But I do think it has to do. I think he truly wants to work on a bipartisan basis. But there’s just no partners. I mean, if you start counting Republicans who could stand up to President Trump and who could stand up to Leader McConnell, you’ve stopped counting just around maybe three, you know? Maybe Sen. Romney will be on board, but he said he doesn’t support the For the People Act. Maybe Sen. Collins could be on board, but she doesn’t seem inclined to support this bill. Maybe Sen. Murkowski. The interesting thing about Sen. Murkowski, of course, is that she runs in Alaska where they changed the election rules so she doesn’t have to worry as much about her base, so she’s a little bit more open to bills like this. But you need 10. That’s three. That means you’re still counting. You need to count seven more, and even those three are almost certainly not going to actually ultimately be on board with For the People.
So he needs to come up with 10 very quickly. He’s not going to. And then the question is what’s he and Sen. Sinema and the Democratic caucus as a whole? What are they going to do about it? Are they going to accept defeat and say: We’re gonna let our democracy slide closer and closer to collapse, because we want to protect a Senate rule that has changed many, many times over the years? I don’t think so. I hope not.
I hope that that is that that choice is too clearly the wrong choice and they decide they will update the Senate rules the way Sen. Reid did in ’13, the way Sen. McConnell did in ’17, the way it has been done many, many times before and make the Senate work again, so that when a majority support something and it’s popular, they can pass it. And if voters don’t like it, they’ll be able to fairly come to the polls, and vote for the party they support.
RG: Well, we all await the deliberations of one Joe Manchin. Ellie, thanks so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
EZ: Absolutely. Happy to be on.
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RG: That was Eli Zupnick, and that’s our show. A quick update on last month’s fundraiser: If you made a donation, your copy of “We’ve Got People” has been signed and has been shipped to the fulfillment center, though it may still be a week or two before you get it. Again, thank you to everybody who gave.
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