The Senate got one step closer to actually functioning Monday evening when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to abandon his ultimatum that Democrats commit to preserving the legislative filibuster, which allows the minority party to compel a 60-vote supermajority to pass certain types of legislation. McConnell, despite losing control of the Senate earlier this month, dragged his feet on a power-sharing agreement that would allow the body to reapportion its committees and begin its work of the new Congress. The need for an operating agreement in the Senate—determining the size and composition of committees, as well as the ratio of Democrats and Republicans on each—is particularly thorny this time around because the chamber is split 50-50 between the two parties, a deadlock broken by the vice president, the first time the body has been evenly divided in two decades.
McConnell had withheld his final approval for a negotiated agreement based on the rules used in the last evenly split Senate in 2001, meaning that the Senate has been unable to officially reorganize its committees, technically leaving Republicans in the chair of the committees despite being in the minority. McConnell’s ability to stall on the filibuster, in a fitting tautological touch, was powered by the threat of the filibuster itself. “The structure of Senate operations is laid out in a resolution that is subject to the filibuster itself,” the Washington Post notes, “which gave McConnell leverage to make his demands.” Under the 2001 rules, committee memership was split evenly, the party of the vice president assumed committee chairs, and tied votes in committee were moved to the full chamber.
Democrats, particularly activists on the left, have been calling for sweeping legislative reform based on the removal of the filibuster rule that makes such decisive legislative action nearly impossible. It seemed unlikely that President Joe Biden wanted to pick such a divisive fight so early in his presidency, but McConnell was intent on making it an issue, presumably as a means to keep the GOP base sufficiently enraged. The Democratic leadership refused to provide McConnell the “guarantee” he was looking for, so, on Monday, he took two Democratic senators—Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia—comments opposing undoing the filibuster as “confirmation” of the party’s commitment to maintaining the rule and agreed to move on to Step One of the governing process. Not exactly rousing endorsement for bipartisan common cause in the post-Trump era.