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Tester backs making permanent filibuster changes

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Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaks at the Capitol in Washington on June 9.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., says it’s time to change the filibuster, not only for voting rights legislation but for all bills, because the requirement of a 60-vote supermajority to override opponents has ground business to a standstill.

Speaking recently with the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, Tester said the filibuster has become politicized beyond usefulness. He called the voting rights legislation that Senate Democrats expect to take up in the coming days too important to be thwarted by procedural maneuvers.

“I have to make the decision, ‘Jon Tester, did you come to the United States Senate to sit around and watch folks like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley just stop things, or did you come to the United States Senate to get things done?'” Tester told CAP Action CEO Patrick Gaspard.

“And I came to the United States Senate to get things done. I do think that bipartisan is always the best. But at some point in time, and in the case of voting rights, you have to say this is important for our democracy, it’s important for our country, maybe the most important thing I’ll ever do as a United States senator. Am I going to sit here and allow a rule that’s been weaponized stop us from doing something that could very well save our democracy?," Tester said.

The filibuster is a Senate tradition that historically has allowed lawmakers through debate to talk a bill to death by speechifying nonstop. At least initially there was no way to end debate, but then rules were changed to allow lawmakers to end a filibuster through a super-majority vote, now set at 60 senators, to invoke cloture. Some Senate matters were also ruled off limits to filibusters, like budget resolutions and judicial nominations. This is an abridged explanation of the Senate’s official history.

But the modern filibuster is free of nonstop debate. Rather, if 41 senators indicate they won’t vote to invoke cloture, the threat of a filibuster is objection enough and bill votes are simply abandoned.

President Joe Biden and Senate Democratic leadership are now proposing a “carve-out” to the filibuster rule when it comes to voting rights legislation, specifically The Freedom to Vote Act, the Democrats response to state-level voting law changes in 19 states, including Montana, which make it harder for some people to vote.

After Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced on the Senate floor Thursday that she wouldn't back a filibuster change, the rally cry for voting rights deflated.

Tester, Montana’s only statewide-elected Democrat, said he would settle for carving out a filibuster exception so voting rights legislation can advance, but his preference would be to change the way the filibuster is used in all cases. He also mentioned two new Montana laws passed on party lines in the 2021 Montana Legislature that made voting more difficult.

Specifically, Tester pointed out the new law won’t allow university students to use school photo ID cards for voter identification without producing further documents, while concealed weapons permits qualify as sufficient identification. The state also made it more difficult for one person to submit ballots for multiple people. The state's new voting laws say the person gathering ballots cannot be paid to do so, which was met with objection by Indigenous lawmakers who said groups like Western Native Vote were important for registering Indigenous voters and gathering ballots.

Republicans have been adamant that Montana’s election law changes were done for election integrity and not to make voting more difficult. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., last week framed Montana’s new election laws as “making it harder to cheat” and said most people support voter ID requirements. He’s called Senate Democrats’ voting rights legislation “a far-left power grab.”

Cheating hasn’t been a problem in Montana elections. The Gazette reported in 2020 that a decade-long study of more than 7 million ballots cast in Montana elections showed just one confirmed case of illegal voting.

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