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Kill the Senate Filibuster and Save a Bipartisan American West That Cares About the Environment

Getty Images - Filibuster - Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) arrives for a press conference with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) after the U.S. Senate passed the "nuclear option," at the U.S. Capitol Nov. 21, 2013. The a controversial vote changed Senate rules on filibusters for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote. Seven years later, the filibuster is under scrutiny again. | Win McNamee / Getty Images
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For a bipartisan American West to thrive, the Senate filibuster must die. So say Harry Reid, the former U.S. Senate majority leader from Nevada, and three other western senators, Martin Heinrich from New Mexico, Jeff Merkley from Oregon, and Alex Padilla from California, all Democrats.

They are joined by another 10 western Democrats who say the filibuster may need to be reformed or abolished — to allow legislation to pass with a simple majority vote rather than the supermajority required to overcome a filibuster — if the partisan logjam holding up legislation in the Senate does not break soon.

Across the United States, 18 Democratic senators support filibuster reform, 27 have made public statements that they would consider reform, three have made no statements, and two are opposed to reform. There is only one western hardline holdout among Democrats in the Senate, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is totally opposed to changing the filibuster. She is joined by Joe Manchin of West Virginia back east. Republicans are opposed to any filibuster reform.

But pressure for change is mounting, even if it is just gradual change to begin with. Washington's Patty Murray, the third most senior senator, recently announced that she "will consider every legislative option, including an exemption to the filibuster," to ensure that the voting rights bill known as the "For the People Act" becomes law.

While concerns about voting rights and gun control legislation are driving increased interest in reforming the filibuster, senators also cite other legislation popular among bipartisan voters that is unlikely to pass with the filibuster in place.

Catherine Cortez Masto, who was elected to the Senate to replace Harry Reid when he retired in 2016, has said action on climate change is also threatened by the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for "cloture," or closing debate.

In the popular imagination, the filibuster is best known from the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which James Stewart portrays a senator from an unnamed western state who talks non-stop on the Senate floor for more than 24 hours to halt a corrupt dam building scheme before he collapses.

Right now, senators do not have to stand and talk to filibuster. They can just put a silent filibuster on any legislation, which has led to the proliferation of filibusters and very little legislation passing out of the Senate.

Cortez Masto wants to change that. Although Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is now the minority rather than the majority leader, he can still control the Senate by blocking legislation. Cortez Masto has said he should have to stand and talk if he wants to block progress.

"McConnell is determined to exploit the filibuster and fight progress on the most urgent crises facing our nation and if he wants to block action on health care, climate change and voting rights, he should have to stand on the Senate floor and be transparent about his obstruction," Cortez Masto said.

Protecting the environment should not be considered a partisan issue, Cortez Masto says in this exclusive "Earth Focus" interview.
Sen. Cortez Masto: Protecting the Outdoors is Nonpartisan

Restoring the "talking filibuster" could be one step toward ending the filibuster completely, said Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy."

"You might see the filibuster used less on more minor pieces of legislation," Jentleson, a former deputy chief of staff for Harry Reid, told me, "and you might see less overall obstruction, but you're still going to see obstruction on the issues that matter the most, including climate and environment."

Even to make that change, Democrats will have to use the so-called "nuclear option," using a simple majority vote to change the Senate's rules, a vote that cannot be filibustered. "Once senators start down that road there, they're not going to stop," Jentleson predicted.

For Reid, "what we're talking about is having a democracy where you don't need 60% of the vote to get things done."

Some senators, like Sinema and Manchin, argue that the filibuster encourages bipartisan compromises because the parties have to get some votes from the other side to overcome the filibuster. But there has been little evidence of that in recent years.

Supporters of abolishing the filibuster argue that it will encourage Democrats to reach across the aisle for a few Republic votes to get over the 51-vote majority threshold, particularly if they don't have all 50 Democrats, and vice versa. This is especially true in a purple region, like the 13 western states in which Democrats hold 15 Senate seats and Republicans hold 11, and where voters share common values, especially when it comes to the environment.

In the American West bipartisan support extends to actions on conservation, climate and a transition to renewable energy that are unlikely to be able to clear the filibuster hurdle. A recent poll conducted by Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project found that 77% of western voters support conserving 30% of the nation's land and waters by 2030; 72% support making public lands a net-zero source of carbon pollution; and 66% support a transition to 100% clean, renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydropower.

Jentleson said that Reid would tell his staff, "I'd always rather dance than fight." That bipartisan dance helped pass major public lands bills, protecting more than 4 million acres of wilderness in Nevada, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which stimulated massive investments in renewable energy.

A quiet, little-known revolution is taking place in American environmental politics. Watch more about Harry Reid's approach to bipartisanship.
The New West and the Politics of the Environment

The Great American Outdoors Act, which passed the Senate 92 to 8 in 2019, protecting 1.3 million acres of wilderness and 1 million acres of national monuments and other public lands around the country, is an example of what is possible nationally when senators dance rather than fight. That bill had something for everyone, including Republican senators up for re-election in the West in 2020, who needed to burnish their environmental belt buckles. Compromises on climate change and energy policy will likely be tougher but potentially possible if the support of western voters persuades Republican senators they can buck their party line and they aren't blocked by a filibuster.

But there is still one western senator who is not ready to come to a filibuster abolishing barn dance quite yet.

A spokeswoman recently said that Sinema is not only "against eliminating the filibuster," she is "not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster."

So unless Arizona voters persuade Sinema to open her mind, McConnell will continue to hold the key to the lock on the closed barn door of the Senate.

Harry Reid and Adam Jentleson were interviewed by Jon Christensen at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital, where "The New West and the Politics of the Environment," a feature-length documentary co-produced by KCET and the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA, was screened this spring.

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