“Threats to American democracy are real,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema declared on the floor of the Senate last week, pointing to “efforts in several states that will make it more difficult for Americans to vote and undermine faith that all Americans should have in our elections and our democracy.” The senator, whom I first met in 2006 when we were campaigning in Arizona for marriage equality, said flatly, “These state laws have no place in a nation whose government is formed by free, fair, and open elections.”
She is right. This subversion of our freedoms is existential, and must have no place if American democracy is to survive.
In this speech, which some outlets described (prematurely, in my view) as the death knell for voting rights legislation, Sinema also repledged her support for “legislative responses to address these state laws, including the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, that the Senate is currently considering.” The reason for the pessimism after Sinema’s speech is that despite the “strong” support she professes, she wants the Senate’s response to these attacks on American democracy to be “bipartisan,” a near-term impossibility thanks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s and his Republican conference’s staunch opposition to protecting voting rights.
“Retaining the legislative filibuster is not meant to impede the things we want to get done,” Sinema has asserted. “Rather, it’s meant to protect what the Senate was designed to be. I believe the Senate has a responsibility to put politics aside and fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans.”
Sinema’s quandary is that it is the abuse of the filibuster that stands in the way of the very measures Sinema concedes are necessary to address the attacks that “should have no place” in our democracy. It is the filibuster as practiced today that actually has vitiated the very debate and action that Sinema is for.
The wave of measures ramping up voter suppression, election interference, gerrymandering to lock in partisan advantage, and so on is part of a power grab that is, in fact, virtually entirely partisan—a Trump-inspired campaign to seize and preserve power for an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party not just over Democrats, but over the wishes of the American electorate. The reasons Sinema’s Senate Republican colleagues have repeatedly blocked even debate over these attacks on democracy is that they don’t want to stop them. The current version of the filibuster allows them to preserve these barriers and cheats in place without debate.
Is there a bipartisan solution to a problem that one side has created precisely because it sees it is to its partisan benefit? As Deep State Radio’s David Rothkopf put it, how do you “persuade a fire not to burn down our system of government? It’s a fire we’re dealing with. Fires don’t negotiate.”
Some see Sinema’s profession of strong support for necessary measures to address the threats she herself decries, combined with her refusal to act to actually ensure that such measures pass, as evidence of her bad faith. I’ve known Sinema since the successful 2006 Arizona Together campaign against an anti-gay ballot measure, in which she played a leading role. In my many decades of activism, I always believed it more useful to focus not on what an elected official may think privately, but, rather, on what she does.
Back then, I experienced Kyrsten Sinema as self-confident, canny, and intent on doing what she determined was needed to get the job done—not one to give up lightly, not one to take no for an answer. And now, at this crucial moment, she still has a chance—an obligation in the eyes of history, I would tell her—to follow up on last week’s speech with action. Action to address the threats to the freedom to vote and elections. Action by America’s Senate to pass urgently needed restorative measures that, in her own words, “strengthen Americans’ access to the ballot box and better ensure that Americans’ votes are counted fairly.”
In teeing up such action to pass the needed measures, Sinema can begin with the fact that the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act have broad bipartisan support in the country, even if not among Republican elected officials, including the Senate Republican Caucus. This includes, as Politico recently reported, significant majority support for expanding access to early voting, prohibiting partisan gerrymandering, and enhancing mail-in voting and same-day voter registration.
If Sinema sees threats, supports the cures, and is joined by bipartisan majorities of the American people—and yet also believes she should retain the filibuster because she wants robust debate and minority input—what should she do to thread her own needle?
Sinema herself noted that “senators of both parties have offered ideas—including some that would earn my support—to make this body more productive, more deliberative, more responsive to Americans’ needs, and a place of genuine debate about our country’s pressing issues.” One way to prove she is serious is to require that there actually be the debate she says she wants.
Wholly compatible with Sinema’s commitment both to preserving the filibuster and to making the Senate deliver for the American people, she should now lead the charge for at least restoring the “talking filibuster.” That’s the version that existed for most of the filibuster’s history. By requiring “at least two-fifths of the full Senate, or 40 senators, to keep debating instead [of] requiring 60 to end debate,” as Senate expert Norm Ornstein explains, the “burden would fall to the minority … and if only once they couldn’t muster 40—the equivalent of cloture—debate would end, making way for a vote on final passage of the bill in question.” Sinema should also press for a return to the traditional “present and voting” standard, requiring enough senators opposed to moving forward to actually show up, explain their position, and hold the floor until the cloture vote is taken, even if a three-fifths cloture requirement remains, as Sinema believes it should.
Consider this the Sinema Solution. If she leads on it, call it the Sinema Solution. But, Senator, get it done.
Don’t get me wrong—I believe that the ahistorical 60-vote threshold that Sinema extols (but the Framers rejected) is destructive of good government, actually weakens bipartisanship, and should go. As Stand Up America recently noted, if it takes only 51 votes to confirm Supreme Court and Cabinet nominees, pass trillions in budget legislation and corporate tax cuts, and, just recently, raise the debt ceiling, why should it require 60 votes to protect Americans’ elections and freedom to vote?
But I am not in the Senate. Kyrsten Sinema is. And so what matters is what Sinema thinks—or, more precisely, what she does.
Sinema was right when she said “threats to American democracy are real,” and right when she said “we need a sustained, robust effort to defend American democracy.” What she must do now is follow up on her words with action. She needs to take responsibility for leading a sustained, robust effort that begins with real action in the Senate. It’s time for her to embrace and push forward the Sinema Solution.