NEW YORK — Senator Elizabeth Warren lobbed another policy grenade into the Democratic primary Friday, announcing she supports drastically changing the Senate by eliminating its legendary filibuster to give her party a better chance of implementing its ambitious agenda.
The move puts her campaign rivals on the spot to explain how they would pass their own ambitious legislative priorities if the Senate keeps its rule in place requiring a 60-vote supermajority to advance most bills.
Warren’s announcement allows her to swerve to the left of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in a meaningful way at a time when she’s straggling far behind him in early polls and grass-roots fund-raising.
Sanders, who popularized proposals like free college and Medicare for All among Democrats during his 2016 run for president, has been reluctant to support scrapping the filibuster. That raises questions about how he would be able to pass his sweeping proposals into law should he become president, given Democrats are extremely unlikely to have 60 seats in the Senate.
“I’m not running for president just to talk about making real, structural change,” Warren told a group of activists at a conference organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton, where she announced her opposition to the filibuster. “I’m serious about getting it done. And part of getting it done means waking up to the reality of the United States Senate.”
The appearance in New York caps off a three-week run that has seen Warren call for making it easier to send executives to jail for corporate crimes, unveil a proposal to break up farm monopolies, endorse forming a commission to study reparations for the descendants of slaves, and say she would like to abolish the Electoral College so presidents are elected by popular vote.
“Bernie Sanders, nobody’s to his left on policy, but there’s lots of running room on his left on procedural changes that would be necessary to enact those policies,” said Brian Fallon, a former top Hillary Clinton aide and the founder of the liberal advocacy group Demand Justice.
Sanders said he’s not “crazy about” the idea of getting rid of the filibuster in an interview in February, but said in a later statement that he is open to reform.
Getting rid of the Senate filibuster, which has been around since the mid-1800s, was once seen as a radical proposal that would undermine the chamber’s ability to take a deliberative approach to major issues. But Democratic and Republican majorities have chipped away at it in recent years, jettisoning filibusters for Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees.
Just this week, Senate Republicans infuriated Democrats by unilaterally reducing the amount of debate time for other executive branch and judicial nominees before a filibuster could be ended.
The move to ditch the filibuster has gained currency among liberals frustrated that the Senate is more Republican than the general public because of liberals clustering on the coasts and the constitutional requirement that all states get two senators regardless of population.
President Trump and Barack Obama have complained about the filibuster, with Obama saying last year that it made it “almost impossible” to govern.
Though probably too wonky a proposal to reach the average voter, the debate over the Senate filibuster animates the Democratic activists who are watching the primary the most closely and whose support the candidates are vying to win. Those activists are unmoved by candidates who say they’ll be able to persuade Republicans to sign onto their ambitious liberal legislation.
“The idea that you can win people over by inviting them over for drinks on the Truman Balcony — that is completely out of vogue,” Fallon said.
Other candidates have also called for getting rid of the filibuster, including Governor Jay Inslee of Washington and Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who is pondering a run. However, Warren is the first sitting senator in the race to do so. Senator Kamala Harris of California, who signed a letter in 2017 affirming the filibuster, now says she’s conflicted about it.
The filibuster’s defenders say it protects the rights of the minority party, and forces the majority to compromise. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who also signed the 2017 letter, has said he is concerned that getting rid of the filibuster would mean Republicans would be able to more easily pass legislation in the future over Democrats’ objections.
In her speech to the National Action Network’s activists, a largely black crowd, Warren framed the filibuster as a tool of “racists” who used it for decades to block civil rights legislation, including a bill to make lynching a federal crime that was first introduced in the early 1900s. The legislation finally passed this year.
“We can’t sit around for 100 years while climate change destroys our planet, while corruption pervades every nook and cranny of Washington, and while too much of a child’s fate in life still rests on the color of their skin,” she said.
After her speech, Warren told reporters that she is concerned about the bills Republicans would be able to pass without the filibuster, but that getting rid of it is worth it for Democrats. “Of course I’m worried. But I’m also worried about a minority that blocks real change that we need to make in this country,” she said.
The calls to eliminate the filibuster are part of a larger debate among Democrats about reforming US democracy after they lost the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections despite winning the popular vote. Warren, along with several other Democrats, has also called to abolish the Electoral College. Warren, Harris, and former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas are also open to the idea of the next president expanding the number of seats on the Supreme Court to offset its conservative majority.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who pushes a host of liberal policies, has been more conservative on these proposals than many of his presidential campaign rivals. He is against expanding the court, arguing it would be a slippery slope that Republicans could also take advantage of, and is still on the fence about ditching the filibuster and abolishing the Electoral College.
Warren declined to call out her Senate colleagues when asked whether she was surprised they had not endorsed the idea of ending the filibuster. “All I can do is keep running the campaign I’m running and talking about these ideas,” she said.