On the trail: The political consequences of Hassan’s filibuster announcement

  • In a speech on Thursday night, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan said she backs scrapping the Senate’s longstanding 60-vote legislative filibuster in order to pass a wide-ranging election and campaign finance reform bill supported by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats. —Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 12/17/2021 3:21:51 PM

Did Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan take a big step “to save democracy” on the Senate floor Thursday night or did New Hampshire’s former governor just “flip flop?”

That’s the political discussion in the wake of Hassan’s announcement that she backs scrapping the Senate’s longstanding 60-vote legislative filibuster in order to pass a wide-ranging election and campaign finance reform bill supported by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.

The voting bill – a top priority for her party – passed the Democratic-controlled House along party lines earlier this year. But Republicans vehemently oppose the measure, which is stalled in a Senate split 50-50 between the two major parties. The GOP criticizes the sweeping legislation as a federal power grab and a takeover by Washington D.C. of the states’ longstanding ability to control their federal elections. Further, Republicans accuse Democrats of trying to change election rules to benefit themselves.

Hassan charged that “our beloved democracy is under attack,” as she pointed to moves by a growing number of Republican-controlled states – including New Hampshire – that have passed laws tightening voting access rules in response to former President Donald Trump’s repeated unfounded claims that his 2020 election defeat was due to massive voter fraud. Democrats characterize the new GOP-supported state laws as voter suppression efforts.

“In states around the country, partisan lawmakers are proposing to ignore properly cast votes, essentially trying to throw out the votes and silence the voices of those with whom they disagree. These partisans are more concerned about losing power than protecting the rights of citizens and preserving the foundation of our country,” Hassan argued in her speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The senator then targeted the filibuster as an obstacle.

“Here in Washington, a set of arcane Senate rules are being used as an excuse not to act. This cannot stand,” Hassan said. “We must change the rules, to allow a simple majority of this body, as our Founders intended, to pass laws that will protect the right to vote and protect American democracy.”

Democrats highlight that their bill would expand early voting, make Election Day a national holiday, ban partisan gerrymandering, and implement election security and campaign finance measures. The bill also provides multiple election security provisions, including mandatory, nationwide use of machines that deliver paper ballots.

Hassan, who faces a potentially challenging reelection next year as her party defends its razor-thin majority in the Senate, joins a growing number of Democratic senators who back changing Senate rules to scrap the filibuster in order to pass their voting package.

The filibuster, a longstanding Senate tradition requiring 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to advance a bill, effectively allows the minority party to block certain legislation. The Senate is currently evenly split between the two parties, with the Democrats holding a majority due to the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris through her constitutional role as president of the Senate.

But the Democrats are nowhere close to obtaining the 60 votes needed to quash a filibuster. They don’t even have the simple majority needed to eliminate the legislative filibuster rule. Two moderate Democrats – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia – have opposed their party’s push to scrap the filibuster.

Minutes after her Senate floor speech, the senator made an appearance on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, which is extremely popular with Democrats. Hassan followed up that interview with a fundraising pitch on Twitter for her 2022 reelection campaign.

“I just got off the air with @maddow, where I discussed what’s at stake for our democracy. As extreme politicians undermine our elections, it’s never been more important to defend our Senate majority. Can I count on you to chip in before it’s too late?” the senator wrote.

Republicans, who want to preserve the filibuster, quickly attacked Hassan, noting the senator’s past support for the filibuster when the Democrats were the minority party in the Senate.

To be clear, Hassan isn’t advocating doing away with the filibuster for good. She just wants it to go away for the purpose of passing the voting rights legislation.

Still, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the reelection arm of the Senate GOP, accused her of doing an about-face. “We may never see such a brazen, self-serving flip flop ever again,” the organization charged. “Maggie Hassan has gone back on her word.”

Pointing to a warning earlier this year by longtime New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner that the Democrats’ election reform bill could jeopardize the Granite State’s cherished century-old tradition of holding the first primary in the presidential nominating calendar, the NRSC said Hassan “surrendered the fate of New Hampshire’s First-In-The-Nation primary to her buddy Chuck Schumer.”

But it was a very different message from 603 Forward, a New Hampshire-based progressive group.

“Our country is at a crossroads. This is a ‘who’s side are you on’ moment that Americans will look back at decades from now,” 603 Forward chair Lucas Meyer argued.

With her reelection underway, it’s natural that Hassan’s announcement is seen through a campaign lens.

Veteran New Hampshire-based political scientist Wayne Lesperance told the Monitor that the senator’s move appears “politically motivated and the timing of it is politically motivated.”

But Lesperance, the vice president of academic affairs at New England College in Henniker, added that “there’s no political downside to this…The only folks who are alienated by the senator’s move are folks who weren’t going to vote for her anyway.”

Lesperance said voters just want to see progress, not gridlock come out of Washington.

“The average citizen doesn’t look at the Senate rules and say ‘that makes sense. You have to have a filibuster-proof majority to get things done,” Lesperance said. “They all say why can’t these folks work together and get things done. This is a move in that direction.”

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