There has been a lot of talk about bipartisanship over the past several days, as the US Senate plods through the process of approving a narrowly drawn $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which the Senate is expected to pass today. It represents a massive compromise by Democrats whose president had, in the spring, proposed a far more ambitious and socially responsible $2.3 trillion package. While there certainly are good items in the so-called “BIF” (bipartisan infrastructure) bill that was cobbled together by centrist Democrats and right-wing Republicans, much of what made Biden’s initial plan so appealing—especially its ambitious climate proposals and visionary investment in caregiving—was dialed back or eliminated altogether.
What if Democrats didn’t have to compromise? What if they governed as people expect them to govern?
That’s the challenge that Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is raising as a part of a blunt new emphasis on the part of his campaign to replace retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey. When The Arizona Republic reported in late July that Senator Kyrsten Sinema was expressing opposition to the $3.5 trillion budget plan developed by Biden and Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders, Fetterman responded immediately. “Democrats need to vote like Democrats,” he declared. “I would always be that 51st Democratic vote.”
The Pennsylvania race is a top priority for Democrats in 2022. Along with the Wisconsin race to replace Republican Ron Johnson, it’s one of a pair of contests where a Republican-held seat could be flipped in a state that voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. If Democrats hold the seats they’ve already got in the Senate and take the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin seats, the party will have a 52-48 majority. That’s a big deal, because it would mean that the party would no longer be at the mercy of an individual senator who refuses to go along with a major initiative. Indeed, even if two Democrats—say, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema—were to break with the party, Vice President Kamala Harris could still break a 50-50 tie and produce a win.
It’s a good bet that several of the Democrats competing for the Pennsylvania seat—including state Representative Malcolm Kenyatta and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh—would also be a 51st vote for bolder policies. But Fetterman has made his commitment to “vote like a Democrat” central to his message in recent weeks, returning to it again and again in discussions of how he would approach debates in D.C. When Biden traveled to Pennsylvania last month to call out Republicans on voter suppression issues, Fetterman said, “It’s a shame that President Biden has to come to Pennsylvania. Of course, we’re delighted to have him. But the reason why he has to come to Pennsylvania is because the Republicans need to be called out on this systematic attempt to suppress votes all across this country. And that problem is exacerbated by Democrats in the Senate refusing to collectively vote as Democrats.”
Specifically, he said Senate Democrats should be united to “push some voting rights legislation through [by] getting rid of the filibuster.” Manchin and Sinema have been resistant to filibuster reforms that might make it possible to pass democracy-sustaining legislation such as the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But Fetterman casts a broader net, saying, “I’m talking about any Democrat. You have a party on the other side that is absolutely committed to making sure that they suppress enough votes for them to win the next election. You see it in Texas. You see it in Pennsylvania. When you’re under that kind of siege…I think it’s incumbent on our party, as Democrats, to step up and vote like Democrats, to do what we need to do to push this stuff back, to stop it in its tracks.”
The blunt language from Fetterman is being portrayed in media reports as a jab against US Representative Conor Lamb, a centrist Democrat who recently entered the Pennsylvania Senate primary. But there is more to it than that.
Across the country, Democrats who are bidding for Republican-held Senate seats are making it clear that they are prepared to tip the balance against the filibuster in order to advance a progressive agenda. “The filibuster is getting in the way of so much that we need to progress as a society—this could be voting rights, this could be infrastructure,” says Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, a Democrat who is running for a Senate seat in her state. “We’re sitting around doing this whole dance just simply because a a few people want to protect this institution that is a relic of the past.”
“If the choice is the filibuster or democracy, then, obviously, we need to choose democracy,” says Barnes.
One of Barnes’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, recently posted a video of Sinema claiming that the filibuster “protects the democracy of our nation.” The Wisconsin Democrat responded with a message similar to Fetterman’s: “The filibuster was not created to foster bipartisanship. The filibuster has been used to kill civil rights legislation for nearly a century. We can have the filibuster or we can have true democracy, but we can’t have both. It should be an easy choice for any Democrat.”