Let’s say you’re a middle-of-the-road senator. Maybe you’re from a purple state, maybe you’re moderate in your views, maybe both. Your party has a small majority. Sometimes a piece of legislation that is very important to the most revved-up portion of your party is one that you dislike, or that doesn’t play well in your state. How to handle the political problem?
Enter the filibuster. You can give the bill its 52nd or 53rd vote secure in the knowledge that it’s not going anywhere. Supporters of the bill aren’t mad at you, because you sided with them. Opponents of the bill aren’t too mad at you, either, because they won. It won’t always work out that way, of course — sometimes the opponents will hold your vote against you even though they won — but it’s often a better political outcome for you than having to actually be responsible for passing or killing the bill. If you privately believe the bill is a bad idea, so much the better.
What happens, though, when the filibuster itself becomes an issue? The majority-party senator who values it as a means of seeing bills die without having to kill them himself, or who just thinks it’s a good institution, can perform the same maneuver: Say he’s against the filibuster and will vote to abolish it while secretly hoping that a majority votes to keep it. But this dodge might not work if he is the actual deciding vote.
Then the question he might ask himself is: Do I want to vote against my party’s hard-core activists on one procedural issue that very few voters care about, or do I want to face vote after vote on abortion, the minimum wage, environmental regulation, etc., where I may have to disappoint my party on issues that a lot of voters care about?
He might also think about how the filibuster will affect his status in the event his party narrowly loses the majority. If that happens, the other party will have to court him to get something done if there are filibusters. It will have less need of him if there aren’t any.
The backdrop to this hypothetical discussion is that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has been blocking consideration of a resolution to organize the chamber until getting a commitment to preserve the filibuster. After he did that, Senators Sinema and Manchin reiterated that they favor keeping it and aren’t going to change their minds. McConnell has now declared victory and dropped his objection, so the Senate can proceed to organize.
McConnell ate up some of the new majority’s time — even more precious, its early time — and sowed some dissension in its ranks. Some people will say he lost the exchange because he dropped his objection without a formal commitment on the filibuster, but that’s not much of a cost, especially since there’s a credible counterargument that he won. And there are almost certainly more than two Democratic senators who are satisfied with this outcome.