Vice President Kamala Harris could kill the filibuster herself


It was 5:30 a.m. on Friday and all eyes were on Vice President Kamala Harris.

The Constitution gave Harris a second job as Vice President – a side appearance for most modern day observers. She’s not just President Joe Biden’s number 2. She is also the President of the Senate. And it’s not a role it should be overlooked. Indeed, it might be key in turning Biden’s agenda from terms into law. In the right hands, in a Senate as tightly divided as this, it is a task that can finally break the Chamber’s famous impasse and transform Washington.

On Friday, however, the Senate had just spent 19 hours going through what is all too sweetly known as “Vote-o-Rama” – an avalanche of uninterrupted debate and votes on the amendments needed to bring Biden’s Covid-19 aid package in the amount of $ 1.9 trillion. Several tired senators had their heads in their hands when the last roll call began ten minutes earlier.

“Okay, should I do that?” Harris could be heard asking as her fingers reached for the little ivory hammer in front of her. With a nod from Senate MP Elizabeth MacDonough, Harris tapped the gavel briefly, playing the most visible role she was given in the Constitution.

“In this vote, the yes 50, the no 50,” intoned Harris. “The Senate is divided equally, the Vice President agrees, and the simultaneous resolution as amended is adopted.” Scattered applause greeted their announcement.

Harris’ predecessor, Mike Pence, cast 13 votes, a record for modern vice presidents. It’s a job he, Harris, and every other Vice President won in the past in an accident in history, an afterthought role for an afterthought. When the vice presidency was debated in the final days of the Constitutional Convention, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman feared that the official would be “unemployed” if senatorial duties were not addressed.

However, it’s not a gig that Harris is apparently enjoying at the moment. The Los Angeles Times reported in January that its advisors would prefer the Senate Democrats to find ways to avoid having to cast tiebreaking votes so often. Indeed, they hope “that Senate duties will not detract too much from their other responsibilities and priorities, impede travel, dominate their schedule, or interfere with their ability to become an active player in the Biden White House.”

Aside from her groundbreaking vote, which won the Democrats a majority, Harris stands ready to be essential to one of the most pressing issues the Senate will face this Congress: ending the filibuster. Senate Democrats have considered getting rid of the arcane quirk of the rules that stand in the way of the caucus agenda. Last week’s marathon of voting was the price of bypassing the 60-vote threshold in order to cut off the debate on laws the filibuster would otherwise impose. When and when the time comes to destroy the Filibuster, Harris would – and should – be the latest in a line of Vice Presidents to seek to lose the Filibuster’s power.

Harris would – and should – be the youngest in a line of vice presidents to try to lose filibuster power.

The reluctance to delve too deeply into the Senate, reported by their aides, is not surprising given how the vice presidency has come to be. But in the early days of America there was little of the hand-in-hand collaboration between the president and his associate that we see in modern administrations. While Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton barred horns in George Washington’s cabinet, John Adams was largely confined to the legislature that attended the first sessions of the newly formed Senate.

As chairman, Adams was supposed to help steer the flow of traffic in the Senate, recognize speakers, and decide on agenda items and other procedural issues. “It is not my business to interrupt your reflections with general observations of the state of the nation or with recommendations or suggestions for specific action,” said Adams when he first addressed the Senate in April 1789.

But Adams did not keep that promise for long. During one notorious early debate, he suggested that Washington should be titled “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the United States.” The proposal was flatly rejected. After a year of speaking to the Senate, Adams received a warning from a friend that he had made many enemies by meddling. Adams replied that he “did not feel like opening my mouth to any question”. This time he kept his word.

When he was Adams’ vice president, Jefferson also believed that his job was mostly legislative. “I consider my office to be constitutionally limited to legislative functions and have not been able to attend any executive consultations,” he wrote in 1797 in a letter to Rep. Elbridge Gerry. (Jefferson mostly used this argument “to refuse other orders from the president, such as a diplomatic mission, and to protect his leadership of the opposition party,” according to American government scholar Harold C. Relyea.)

After the passing of the 12th Amendment, in which the electoral college cast separate votes for President and Vice-President, the office’s reputation continued to decline. Can you name any of the 22 19th century vice-presidents besides those who rose to the presidency? (If you have more than three, you can qualify for a degree in American history.)

From the early 19th through the early 20th centuries, the vice presidency found itself in a no man’s land between executive and legislative branches, with little incentive to take the job seriously. For example, Schuyler Colfax left the speaker’s gavel behind to become Ulysses S. Grant’s first vice-president. After Colfax ran the house, he found the Senate to be “an easy governing body that allows time to travel, speak, and write for the press.”

The vice presidency began to become more firmly established in the executive branch in the 1930s. But it has never shaken its legislative duties.

After Colfax ran the house, he found the Senate to be “an easy governing body that allows time to travel, speak, and write for the press.”

Years before the Watergate complex was built, Richard Nixon was one of the most influential vice presidents and had contributed to the development of foreign and domestic policy under Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time, the filibuster was an even more powerful weapon. Cloture, the process of breaking the debate to get a vote, required two-thirds of the Senate to vote – and a two-thirds majority was required to change the rule. The Senators of the South used this super majority request to block civil rights laws that had passed the house by a wide margin.

When Nixon led the opening of the new Congress in 1957, he expressed his opinion that the Constitution allows a majority in the Senate to change the rules at the beginning of a new session. Longtime Senate MP Floyd Riddick later implied that even though Nixon spoke to him 40 hours in advance, he was still breaking his office’s recommendation.

While the proposed changes failed, they helped Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, convince the Southerners as a bloc not to filibust the 1957 Civil Rights Act. It was also a reminder that the MP’s recommendation is not necessarily binding on vice-presidents.

Almost 20 years later, it was Nelson Rockefeller who eventually oversaw the lowering of the filibuster cutoff to 60 votes. Rockefeller presided over the Senate in 1975 when a resolution to change the cloture rule was introduced. Against the recommendations of the parliamentarians, he decided that the measure could only be passed with a majority.

The resulting debate lasted for days, and Senator James Allen, D-Ala., Launched the toughest fight. Eventually Rockefeller began to ignore Allen as he stood to speak and the Senator’s efforts knelt. The election was not very popular with some senators, even his Republican counterparts. “At the time, there was some public comment on reprisals from some Republicans, including threats to vote against the president’s veto on legislation suspending his oil import tariff,” the New York Times reported.

Eventually, the Senate leadership reached a compromise in which they essentially nullified Rockefeller’s decision and agreed to reduce the vote requirement to 60 while a two-thirds vote remained required to change the rules in force. The precedent that Rockefeller set may have been annulled – or it has not, there is still some debate – but no one wonders if he had the power to govern the way he did.

Harris might hesitate to go that far, suggested an aide when speaking with The Independent last month. “It would certainly be possible, but I would find it highly unlikely that Joe Biden’s vice president would do such a thing,” said the aide after Harris unilaterally pushed through a rule change. “Because the story would be clearly written that she ignored the MP’s advice … and I don’t think Biden will want to govern like that, and neither will Harris.”

I think that would be a mistake. While some parts of the stimulus package can go through the budget vote, other parts of Biden’s agenda absolutely will not. Senate Minority Chairman Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Is often considered to be the best informed about Senate rules and has already promised to plaster the work if possible to prevent Democrats from moving forward without Republican consent .

Harris should be ready and willing to use whatever powers she has to steer the Senate if necessary. I am particularly fond of the idea proposed by attorney and writer Thomas Geoghegan in a 2010 New York Times statement that if the votes aren’t there to change the rules, the vice president “could give a chairman’s opinion that the Filibuster is unconstitutional. “

That would surely be a way of cutting this Gordian knot.

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