As Democrats push to quickly pass a sweeping coronavirus relief plan, Sen. Bob Casey said he’s open to moving ahead without Republican support — including by ending the filibuster, the Senate rule requiring 60 votes for most major legislation.
And while that move now appears unlikely — and reverses Casey’s position at least as recently as 2017 — the Pennsylvania Democrat also said he is ready to quickly move to reconciliation. That’s a different Senate tactic that would allow Democrats to pass some tax or spending bills, including much of the relief plan, with just 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Either step would bypass Republicans, despite President Joe Biden’s calls for unity and bipartisanship.
Casey’s stance signals that he’s on board with Democrats’ aggressive posture as they take control of the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade.
In an interview Monday, he pointed to the pressing demands of the nation’s health and economic crises, along with the devastating effects of climate change and other urgent issues, to argue that big action is required — even if it means doing it unilaterally.
“It’s always preferable to have strong bipartisan support, it’s always obligatory to dedicate some time to that, but there are times when you have to, to use the old expression, fish or cut bait,” said Casey, a close Biden ally and fellow Scranton native. “You can’t drag it out and hope that some bipartisanship will play out when it won’t be there.”
He said Democrats will know “in the near term” whether Republicans might seriously entertain supporting Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan, “and if not, you’ve got to try to get as much done as you can to get things done by reconciliation, because people are hurting right now.”
Hs comments came as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) told Democrats to be ready to vote as soon as next week on a budget package that could clear the way for unilateral action. Democrats are eager to enact an ambitious agenda, and are wary of repeating their efforts in 2009, when they sought out GOP support for President Barack Obama’s big initiatives, and tempered some of their ideas, only to come up empty. The GOP has accused them of immediately abandoning Biden’s talk of bipartisanship.
Casey said he’s open to ending the 60-vote threshold for advancing legislation, though that step appears highly unlikely, since two fellow Democrats oppose the idea.
In 2017, however, Casey joined a bipartisan letter urging Senate leaders to preserve the filibuster, and the power of the minority party, at a time when Republicans held control of the White House and Congress.
Casey pointed Monday to Republican obstruction under Obama, and the lack of legislative action in the late years of the Trump era, to justify his support for acting unilaterally now. His shift on the filibuster is another signal of how Casey has evolved from a relative moderate in the Senate as he takes more liberal and aggressive stands on a number of issues, hewing to the leftward pull within his party.
“I’m certainly open to that in ways that I would not have said I was two years ago,” Casey said. “The Senate doesn’t function like it used to and I think as much as I’d like to think that we can go back to those days when consensus and bipartisanship was the rule rather than the exception, now it’s the opposite.”
He added, “One way to make the Senate function better and to get big things done that the American people have been asking for years is to take a look at a rule change.”
Even if ending the filibuster is unlikely, reconciliation gives Senate Democrats another option, one the GOP also used to pass President Donald Trump’s tax cuts. Republicans have accused Democrats of hypocrisy on the 60-vote threshold now that they’re in the majority.
“The same tool that some Democrats now want to destroy, they used freely and liberally throughout their years in the minority,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said this week.
If Democrats did eliminate the filibuster, a time would come when the GOP could advance abortion restrictions, loosen environmental regulations, or place limits on labor unions without any way for Democrats to block it, McConnell added.
(McConnell preserved the filibuster for legislation, but eliminated it for Supreme Court nominees, after Democrats had ended it for lower court judges in response to what they saw as GOP obstruction).
Republicans, including Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), have said they oppose Biden’s coronavirus relief plan because the cost is too high, it comes too soon on the heels of a package passed in December, and includes several measures, like a $15 minimum wage that they argue would hurt the economy.
Casey said the December package was meant as a short-term bridge only, and that the country’s needs remain dire.
The 60-vote requirement in the Senate has long been cited as a way to force some measure of bipartisanship on major legislation and to give the minority party some influence, in contrast to the House, where the majority rules unfettered. But with blocking tactics now routine, eliminating the rule is a perennial topic of debate, one that lawmakers in both parties have flip-flopped on depending on whether they were in the majority.
Trump urged fellow Republicans to go all the way and end it for legislation.
Democrats have increasingly argued that it’s simply a tool of obstruction, and gives even more outsized influence to a minority of the country, which already has disproportionate power in a chamber where small, rural states have as much representation as large ones.
It’s unlikely, however, that Democrats can end the 60-vote threshold, since two of their most moderate members, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they oppose the idea.