Mitch McConnell’s Gift to Progressives

For Democrats who want to scrap the Senate filibuster, the GOP’s move to block a January 6 commission is the perfect fight.

An illustration shows an elephant picking up the Capitol dome with his trunk.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic / Getty

Updated on May 28 at 12:16 p.m. ET

Republicans mounted their first legislative blockade of the Biden presidency today, and progressive activists are ready to send them a thank-you note. The GOP’s maiden filibuster didn’t come on a tax increase or Medicare for All or the Green New Deal—not even on the Democrats’ big voting-rights package. No, Republicans blocked the creation of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol that terrorized members of both parties.

The proposed panel is modeled on the one that probed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the bill, which attracted 35 Republican votes in the House, emerged from an agreement between the top Democrat and Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy opposed the legislation, and after some deliberation, so did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. As a consequence, when Senate Democrats tried to bring the bill up for debate, only six Republicans voted in favor of it.

That Republicans would block debate on the commission is a grave sign for anyone hoping for the bare minimum of unified resolve from Congress after an attack on the institution itself—one that succeeded in disrupting the formal certification of the presidential election. As recently as February, seven Senate Republicans joined with every Democrat in voting to convict former President Donald Trump during his impeachment trial for his role in fomenting the assault. But in the months since, McCarthy and McConnell have each recognized that their party’s base remains enthralled with Trump, and they have determined that to maximize their chances of regaining power, they too must avoid angering the former president, who has denounced the proposed commission.

Such commissions are usually a way for lawmakers to depoliticize national tragedies, but Republicans know that unlike, say, the findings of the 9/11 Commission, the politics of January 6 flow in only one direction: against them. No matter how bipartisan or independent, an investigation into the attack on the Capitol will inevitably reflect poorly on Trump, and it will reflect just as poorly on a party that is running under his banner in 2022.

For liberals whose priority is ending or reforming the rule that requires 60 votes to pass most bills in the Senate, however, the GOP’s move is undoubtedly a political gift. Their imperative is to convince the remaining Democratic defenders of the filibuster—namely Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—that it is not a tool that forces consensus. They have to show these holdouts that Republicans are instead bent on abusing it as a matter of routine. “You couldn’t choose a better example of Republican obstreperousness, to use President Biden’s line,” Eli Zupnick, a former Senate Democratic aide, told me. “There was a literal attack on their workplace.”

Zupnick is a spokesperson for the group Fix Our Senate, a coalition of organizations on the left that is lobbying the chamber’s 50 Democrats to scrap or significantly overhaul the filibuster. The group is planning to spend more than $1 million on television and digital ads, and Zupnick said he sees the next two months as crucial to its effort. That’s when Senate Democrats hope to make a major push to pass their For the People Act, a voting-rights bill that would create new federal standards for elections and counter GOP moves at the state level to suppress Democratic turnout.

McConnell has made defeating the voting-rights bill a top priority, and so to pass it, Democrats would have to eliminate the 60-vote threshold. To do that, they need Manchin and Sinema to change their mind. Ginning up grassroots pressure won’t be sufficient. Progressive activists know that for Manchin and Sinema to come around, they need Republicans to help; Manchin and Sinema must see for themselves that, whether out of loyalty to Trump or for other political reasons, Republicans will never be the honest negotiating partners they want them to be.

The two Democrats aren’t going to flip on the filibuster over the January 6 commission—Manchin, at least, has already made that clear. But the move has yielded what Zupnick sees as “cracks in the wall.” Manchin said yesterday that Republicans have “no excuse” for opposing the bill, and earlier this week, for the first time, he and Sinema issued a joint statement aimed at GOP intransigence. “We implore our Republican Senate colleagues to work with us to find a path forward on a commission to examine the events of January 6,” they said. There was no threat added, no “or else” tacked on at the end. Their names, together on the statement, were significant enough.

The likelihood remains slim that Manchin and Sinema will abandon their loyalty to the filibuster in time for Democrats to pass far-reaching voting-rights legislation or other major bills on issues such as gun control and immigration. Manchin isn’t even fully supporting the For the People Act, and he’s busy working with Republicans to salvage a bipartisan infrastructure package. But if progressives’ hopes for eventually winning him over rest on Republicans overplaying their hand, the GOP’s filibuster of a January 6 commission couldn’t have given them a better start.