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David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Ten Republicans broke ranks with their colleagues to try to cut a deal with President Joe Biden on a COVID-19 relief bill.
Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion plan to help speed vaccinations and prop up the economy as the administration deals with the ongoing effects of a global pandemic. The alternative, proposed by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and others, clocks in at $618 billion.
The senators met with the president for about two hours earlier this week, and while the conversations were described as productive, no deal was struck, and Biden seems satisfied with moving forward with his larger, more responsive plan.
I’d like to offer a counterproposal — to both sides.
But before we get to the details of my elaborate plan, a little context is necessary.
Democrats can pass the COVID relief bill without Republican support, using a process called budget reconciliation, a process they began in the Senate on Tuesday. In short, the reconciliation process avoids the potential of a filibuster and allows legislation to pass with a simple majority vote in the U.S. Senate.
Otherwise, most legislation in the U.S. Senate is subject to a filibuster, which essentially requires 60 votes for legislation to move to a floor vote.
During the Obama administration, the filibuster was used by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to obstruct much of the policy agenda and many of the appointments of the president.
Ten Republican votes, then, is the magic number to break a filibuster and allow legislation to receive an up or down vote in the Senate. Thus the magic of the coalition who visited with Biden.
Right now, the U.S. Senate is evenly divided between Democrats (with Sen. Angus King and Sen. Bernie Sanders) and Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris can break a 50-50 tie; she cannot break a filibuster.
Here’s my proposal (which I’m fully aware is nothing more than a Maine columnist yelling into an empty, snowy yard).
Instead of a low-ball counteroffer, the 10 Republican senators should agree that they will vote with Democrats to end a filibuster on COVID-19 rescue legislation.
The Biden administration and Democrats, in turn, will break the $1.9 trillion package into its component parts. Each piece in a separate bill; each piece guaranteed an up-or-down vote.
Members of the Senate would then be free to support — or oppose — any piece of the package that they don’t like. Just like a buffet, they can all pick what they want.
Democrats would start with a slight advantage from a vote counting perspective. Republicans would need to swing one Democratic vote to block any part of the plan. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Senema would suddenly become very popular with their colleagues from both parties.
Here’s the thing: If lawmakers were forced to vote — yes or no — for things like rental relief, direct support to families and aid to local and state governments, I believe that the high wall of Republican obstructionism would crumble.
The political consequences of saying “no” would become clear — and, dare I say, members of the media who are in love with the “gangs” of “moderates” that occasionally form during policy debates in Washington might lose some of their appeal.
Realistically, such a deal would never happen.
The filibuster, often touted as a way to give members of the minority greater influence over legislation and a way to force compromise, is really a shield that lets senators hide behind procedural votes, particularly when they oppose measures that are popular. It’s an outmoded relic and anti-democratic.
It’s easy for Republicans to oppose Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package. It’s a lot more complicated to deny their constituents $1,400 relief checks or to take individual stands on other parts of the package that have strong support.
After all, even President Donald Trump supported more direct assistance to working families.
There was a time when the filibuster was rarely used on legislation. It has become a tool that allows just 41 senators to essentially grind the gears of government to a standstill.
In a democracy — a vote, up or down — seems appropriate. As compromises go, that doesn’t seem like so much to ask.