Some people call Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb a conservative. He prefers to think of himself as a compromiser, a moderate in a polarized political world. Because he was first elected as a Democrat in a district that also elected Donald Trump, he’s often seen as a bellwether, an object lesson in reaching the voters Democrats have lost ground with over the last few years. So it surprised me that Lamb recently got on Twitter to voice his support for blowing up the filibuster. After watching the bipartisan push for a Jan. 6 commission fail spectacularly, Lamb says he felt like he had no choice—“the filibuster has to go.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Lamb about why he’s taking this stand now, and what compromise means when there are fewer and fewer people to compromise with. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Right now the project of democracy is being politicized. Reforms that will increase the democratic project are seen as progressive or left-wing. But you’re trying to separate that out from your stances on issues like the environment or the economy. Are your constituents separating them out too? When you talk to them about the democratic values that you clearly hold, do they see those as apolitical values?
Conor Lamb: I think it’s still a little early in this process. I’ve noticed Washington, D.C., always moves a lot faster in conversation than people back here in my district, and so I am now every day on high alert for what’s happening to our democracy and what’s happening in these different states, and I’m not sure that the average person in my district is yet, particularly because you’re in Pennsylvania. We more or less are at a stalemate because we have a Democratic governor who’s not going to allow the legislature to do all these crazy things they’re doing elsewhere.
Even though the legislature is Republican-controlled.
Yes. And they have tried. We just had a bunch of state legislators travel to Arizona to watch the phony recount. But I can say with a lot of confidence, having got to know my constituents over the last three years, that they would expect me to continue working for achievements and compromises on issues like infrastructure, even as we debate the fundamental issues of our democracy. And that actually makes sense to me.
In infrastructure, just to give you a quick example, there’s a lock on the Ohio River that makes it possible for barges to carry construction equipment and coal and all the things that they move on the river. It’s so old that it’s literally at a 50 percent chance of cracking in half and falling into the river in the next two years. And if that happened, not only the whole river would be shut down, but construction sites along the river would be shut down. People would lose their job. Traffic on the roads would increase. I mean, that’s a real scenario. If that happened, I don’t think anyone in my district is going to look at me and go, “Well, yeah, Conor, that’s not your fault because you were fighting with the Republicans about democracy.” I mean, there’s some basic stuff that we really have to try to get done for our people no matter what.
So you’re trying to make the case to your constituents that we need to be able to get these things passed because otherwise your stuff is going to break, and then it’s too late for us to fix it.
I would actually reverse it. I think that’s the case my constituents make to me on a pretty regular basis. And I agree with them. I think that we have to be able to do multiple things at once. But I’ll also say that my view on the filibuster, on the commitment to democracy that we have to have and the intensity with which we have to have that debate—that has evolved in three years. So I’m learning on the job and I’m trying to achieve this balance right now of working with the Republicans. And when I say the Republicans, really I’m mostly working with Republicans who did not vote to overturn the election. Many of the ones I’m working with voted to impeach Trump the second time.
Can you tell me about that evolution? You’ve said, “I practice bipartisanship because it’s supposed to get results.” But I think a lot of people would say it hasn’t been getting results for a while.
I always challenge people to make sure we know what we’re talking about when we say we’re not getting results, because we actually have, even in the depth of the Trump era, we’ve gotten bipartisan results on important topics. The same week that we did impeachment in the House the first time, we did the USMCA [United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement], probably the most important trade agreement in the United States in the last almost 30 years, by a massive bipartisan vote. And there have been other examples like that. So it still does happen, even though people correctly perceive that we’re in much more partisan times.
But I think the last three years have taught me that the Republicans have really made this whole attack on the ease of voting, and more generally an attack on telling the truth and meaning what you say and basing your statements on facts and true observations about the world—they’ve really made it a core pillar of their party because they have tied themselves so tightly to Trump. I don’t think every Republican walking around thinks that way, but they have all made the decision basically that he’s the head of their party, and so now all that really matters is what he wants or what pleases him. And Jan. 6 really revealed just how dangerous and sinister of a development that that is.
There are many who saw all this coming. I think for me, once I saw it happen on Jan. 6, and particularly that night, when I saw so many of them still vote to overturn the election, I realized that we had kind of crossed the Rubicon with them and that there wasn’t going to be a negotiation on basic issues of truth and democracy and that we would have to fight for those things alone.
You gave a speech that night.
Once the attack happened and those people came back into the chamber, so determined to continue following the big lie and following Trump, I realized it just wasn’t about a point-by-point exposition of the evidence anymore. It was about something a lot deeper and more basic. And it was about putting the truth up front and center and not allowing things like respect and bipartisanship to actually become something that hides the truth from the people we’re supposed to represent. And that was a transition for me, to have to prioritize telling the truth in very raw and stark forms over the practices of bipartisanship that I had been working on for the last three years. …
It was not an easy thing to set aside the bipartisanship in that moment and talk about what was really happening. But it was really happening. And first things first, if we can’t agree to defend the Capitol, if we can’t agree to have a peaceful transition of power, the rest of it doesn’t really matter.
You just won a bruising election. Donald Trump had rallies supporting your challenger, Sean Parnell. You pulled it out by a narrow margin, 2 points, but then had to fight off Parnell in court—he was trying to get mail-in votes thrown out. The fact that you won your seat by a slim margin, some would say that’s an argument for a rule like the filibuster, like it’s a way to ensure legislators find some kind of common ground. I’m wondering if you can explain more why you disagree.
In theory you might think that was an attractive idea. But the evidence is pretty clear that in this polarized era, the filibuster has become nothing but a weapon to grind the Senate and therefore all of the lawmaking process to a halt. And so I think if you look at that evidence and then you also look at the history of the filibuster itself—you know, it’s not in the Constitution. It has had many different rules over time. It’s been used differently for different purposes. But it definitely has this kind of anchor in the Jim Crow era. Nothing about it really suggests that it actually has been a tool for compromise.
And my own experience in Washington has been when you know that a bill is moving, people from both sides start to get on board because they want to attach something to it that’s long-held priorities of theirs and get it through. So I think if we took away the filibuster, we would probably see more bipartisanship in the short term, because all of a sudden people in the minority party in the Senate would say, “Well, this bill is going to move. I might as well get involved early to try to get what I want from it.”
There’s a reason to compromise.
I think there becomes a reason to act at that point. It’s just too easy for everyone not to act right now, if they know that the filibuster is going to block it. And then there’s the whole series of issues about the fact that the filibuster is basically done secretly now. It’s not a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington thing anymore, and I think that’s bad for the public as well. I think the public deserves to see more debates.
Is there a little bit of self-interest here? Like, if you were in the Senate and there was no filibuster, that would be a reason for your Democratic colleagues to be doing a lot more compromising with people like you, people who are considered more conservative Democrats or have views that are not as progressive. Do you see that too?
It’s hard to say because majorities are going to come and go in Washington for both parties. And so, yeah, I guess if we’re in the majority and it’s a narrow majority, then sure, that could empower someone like me again. I think I’m squarely in the middle of where the Democratic Party is. I resist the idea that I’m some person on the right wing of it or whatever. But I guess it could work that way.
To me, the more important motivation is that my constituents, people I talk to about politics, normal people who probably think about politics for less than five minutes a day, I just continue to experience them as being very disappointed and frustrated and even cynical about what we do in Washington, D.C., not because of any particular issue, but because it seems like we get nothing done. And I think one of the true reasons that we get nothing done is the way the filibuster has become this weapon for the forces of opposition. Again, I’m only really talking about setting it aside for the purposes of voting rights and democracy at this point. But if the choice was to get rid of it—
Oh, so you don’t want to blow it up entirely?
Well, what I would say is if the choice was to keep it how it is or get rid of it entirely, I would get rid of it entirely. I’m a young person. There’s a lot I think we need to accomplish to meet the challenges of our era. But my hope would be that if it was set aside for the purposes of enacting H.R. 1 and the Voting Rights Act and doing what we need to do to shore up the institutions of our democracy, we might be able to come to some understanding at some point of how we’re going to protect and promote the minority right to debate. And maybe that becomes something that’s not called a filibuster. Maybe it operates differently. But I would still be looking to do that because, again, both sides are going to be in the majority and in the minority at some point. But I think you have to look at whether you can create a series of options and not just be in the binary of have it or don’t have it.
I noticed you held a fundraiser recently with Joe Manchin, and he’s one of the major figures in the Senate right now who said he’s against getting rid of the filibuster. He’s been pretty consistent on that. I wonder, if you were having a conversation with him, what you would say to explain how you got where you are and maybe sway him.
My conversations with him are private, so I would just kind of say what I would say to anyone who was thinking about this—that the Trump party has shown us who they are and they’ve shown us what they care about. And what they care about is lying about Jan. 6 and doing whatever else they can at all costs to please and protect their leader, Donald Trump. And so what you did not hear in what I just said they cared about is preserving our democracy and our democratic institutions, which, by the way, is what we all swore an oath to protect. The thing we swore an oath to protect as lawmakers was the Constitution. It’s the same oath I swore as a Marine officer and as a prosecutor. It’s something I take really seriously. And so I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon to the point where allowing the filibuster to remain a tool for them in their goal of just gumming up the works in Washington so that these state legislatures out there can try to basically steal our elections and take away people’s right to vote—I don’t think we should allow that to happen. I really don’t. You know, the right to vote is enshrined in the Constitution. The right to filibuster is not. There’s an order of priorities here.