said in a speech Tuesday in Georgia that unless the Senate passes his party-line legislation overturning election laws in most states, American democracy is as good as dead. Less than 48 hours later on the Senate floor, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema ended the suspense as to whether the President will get his way.
According to the reasoning Mr. Biden laid out Tuesday,
opposition to breaking the filibuster to pass his agenda must reflect an indifference to self-government in the U.S.—or even Jim Crow and Confederate sympathies on the part of the Arizona Democrat. Yet as Ms. Sinema calmly explained, she is refusing to go along with the President’s bullying precisely because of her democratic convictions.
Ms. Sinema began by condemning state laws tightening voting rules after the 2020 pandemic election and said she supports a federal legislative response. But she won’t break the Senate’s longstanding 60-vote requirement for passing legislation to bring it about. The state election laws she opposes, she said, are “symptoms of a larger, more deeply rooted problem facing our democracy.”
The problem of polarization would be exacerbated by stripping the minority party of its power in the U.S. Senate. She reminded her co-partisans how “nearly every party-line response” to Senate polarization “has led us to more division,” with judicial confirmation battles as the chief example. In a “steady escalation of tit for tat,” she said, “each new majority weakens the guardrails of the Senate.”
This institutional erosion threatens the checks and balances that make democracy work. Ms. Sinema explained that the Democrats’ proposed voting rules “will not guarantee that we prevent demagogues from winning office,” but scrapping the filibuster will eliminate “a critical tool that we need” to contain them.
Blowing up Senate rules would be all the more provocative in a 50-50 chamber. This is the “longest time in history that the Senate has been equally divided,” Ms. Sinema noted. And Democrats may owe the seats of Georgia Sens.
in part to
Sen. Joe Manchin’s
promise that he wouldn’t break the filibuster. His commitment before the 2021 Georgia runoffs may have given some red-state voters confidence that Democrats could be trusted with the Senate majority.
Ms. Sinema said the closely divided Congress has a mandate to “work together” and observed that “when one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes.” The Biden White House’s careening from a massive partisan welfare expansion to a far-reaching partisan election law—portraying each as an existential battle—proves her point.
We disagree with Ms. Sinema on many policies, but she’s right that the chief challenge for American self-government is leaders “pressuring us to see our fellow Americans as enemies.” President
often indulged in this tendency, and President Biden did the same in his Tuesday speech.
In addition to apparently closing the door on Mr. Biden’s voting agenda, Ms. Sinema’s speech offers a glimpse into an alternate reality where Mr. Biden governed according to his campaign rhetoric and his mandate instead of as a demagogic partisan. His Presidency would not be flailing as much as it is now.
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Appeared in the January 14, 2022, print edition.