Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (KY) has relented on a key demand that Democrats preserve the filibuster, after two Democratic senators - Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) - said they were against tossing out the policy which allows the minority party to block legislation by requiring 60 votes to advance most measures.
McConnell's refusal to ditch the filibuster had left the power-sharing agreement in a stalemate, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had rebuffed the idea of a guarantee, according to Bloomberg.
While both sides claimed victory, McConnell’s position was becoming untenable and risked provoking the Democrats into doing the opposite of what he wanted and eroding the filibuster out of the gate. There’s also potential risk down the line if Republicans engage in maximum obstruction and anger Manchin and Sinema.
So far, on cabinet nominees and on scheduling the impeachment trial, the two sides have managed to avoid a partisan impasse. For instance, Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state, is to be confirmed by the Senate at noon on Tuesday. -Bloomberg
"The legislative filibuster was a key part of the foundation beneath the Senate’s last 50-50 power-sharing agreement in 2001," wrote McConnell in a statement. "With these assurances, I look forward to moving ahead with a power-sharing agreement modeled on that precedent."
Schumer's team wasn't quite so cordial - saying in a statement: "We’re glad Senator McConnell threw in the towel and gave up on his ridiculous demand. We look forward to organizing the Senate under Democratic control and start getting big, bold things done for the American people."
Manchin and Sinema signaling that they won't vote to kill the filibuster essentially allowed McConnell to save face.
On Monday, Manchin told reporters that he "does not support throwing away the filibuster under any condition," while a spokesman for Sinema said she was also against getting rid of the rule.
As Bloomberg notes, Manchin's and Sienma's opposition to killing the filibuster indicates just how tenuous the Democrats' control of the chamber is - as they need all 50 Democrats in lockstep to overcome the 50-50 split (with Vice President Kamala Harris being the tie-breaker). Now, Democrats will need 10 Senate Republicans to join them on most bills unless a simple majority is needed.
Under the agreement in place in 2001, the last time the Senate was evenly split, both parties had an equal number of committee seats equal budgets for committee Republicans and Democrats, and the ability of both leaders to advance legislation out of committees that are deadlocked. But Democrats will hold the chairmanships and Schumer will set the agenda for the floor.
Some issues can be passed with a simple majority via a balky process known as budget reconciliation, but that method has limits on what can be included and when. Already, Democrats are weighing whether to use the process to bypass Republicans on a major virus relief package Schumer wants to send to the White House by mid-March, with a follow-on package later in the year. -Bloomberg
Of note, the Senate has only been evenly divided three times in US history; 1881, 1953 and 2001.
Democrats hoping to use the budget reconciliation process to bypass Republicans on the virus relief package may run into trouble without Manchin and Sinema - who are trying to cobble together a bipartisan package which would be smaller than Biden's proposed $1.9 billion deal. If nothing materializes before the Feb. 8 start of former President Trump's impeachment trial, Democrats could decide to go it alone.
The package continues to shrink, according to Goldman and JPMorgan anyway. As we noted on Monday, Goldman recently slashed its estimate of the final size of the realistic Biden stimulus to just $1.1 trillion from $1.9 trillion, while JPMorgan has gone even further and now expects a mere $900 billion to pass, or a carbon copy of the bipartisan December stimulus (and it will be quite delayed at that as well).