Schumer Wins Round One

The filibuster fight is just getting started ... and I talk to Rich Yeselson about Biden's surprisingly pro-labor stance one week in to his new administration.

On Monday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blinked.

Since last week, McConnell had been holding the Senate hostage by refusing to agree to an organizing resolution for the body until Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave in to his demand that he refuse to consider changing the senate rules guiding the filibuster. This created an unusual situation in which Democrats controlled the Senate but most key committee chairmanships were still held by Republicans.

Schumer held firm and McConnell, citing the comments of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema saying they won’t vote to eliminate the filibuster, finally relented. Since Manchin and Sinema have been saying this for months McConnell didn’t actually get anything in return for his obstructionist tactics. I suppose he did expose the fact that Schumer doesn’t have unanimous support in his caucus to do away with the filibuster, but this is not news.

I’m a bit surprised that McConnell backed down so soon. I assumed he would hold out a bit longer in the hopes that he could deliver a humiliating defeat to Schumer and unify the GOP caucus behind him. But I suspect he was receiving just enough pressure from his fellow Republican senators that he figured it was time for a face-saving measure. And by highlighting the comments from Manchin and Sinema he put both senators in the difficult political position of having to backtrack from their past comments if down the road they decide to join an effort to undo the filibuster.

Make no mistake, this is the first skirmish in what promises to be a drawn out fight. Republicans want to maintain the filibuster because it allows them to stymie the Democrat’s legislative agenda, thus making it possible for Republicans to one day get back in the Senate majority. Most Senate Democrats want to do away with the filibuster so they can pass their legislative agenda. These two positions are simply not reconcilable. There is no middle ground compromise to be found here, which is why I remain convinced that at some point Democrats will reform the filibuster in response to flagrant GOP obstructionism. Manchin and Sinema want to maintain their image as moderate Democrats somehow separate from the progressive riff-raff, but I’m unconvinced they can maintain that position forever, especially if McConnell is blocking everything Democrats want to do. By demanding that Democrats and Republicans compromise, rather than go nuclear and blow up the filibuster, they are, in effect, handing Mitch McConnell complete political power to stop the Democrat’s agenda. At some point one would imagine they realize this.

The other possibility, flagged by a congressional observer I spoke to recently, is that Democrats could change the so-called Byrd Rule. As things currently stand, budget reconciliation bills require only a simple majority to pass in the Senate, but because of the Byrd Rule there are limits to what you can include in those reconciliation packages. No “extraneous matter” is how the rule puts it.

Scrapping the Byrd rule would not allow for every piece of legislation to be included in reconciliation - voting rights, for example, would not qualify. But measures like a $15 minimum wage could theoretically be included. Changing the Byrd rule could allow for broader reconciliation packages to be brought to the Senate floor. I’m not saying this is necessarily going to happen but it’s a worthwhile reminder that there are other tools to allow the Senate to operate without the constraints of a super-majority and let Manchin and Sinema remain true to their pledges.

Here’s a good primer on the Byrd Rule from the Congressional Research Service.

Joe Biden … Friend of the Working Man

My old friend Rich Yeselson, who spent nearly a quarter century working in the labor movement, noted on Twitter this morning that “Everything Biden has done so far on labor issues--worker's rights and unions, including policy and personnel--has been as good as I could have hoped for.” This tweet came in response to a decision by Biden’s Department of Agriculture to withdraw a Trump administration proposal to increase line speeds in poultry plants, which puts workers at greater risk of injury.

Since national media doesn’t spend nearly enough time talking about labor issues I reached out to Yeselson for other examples of Biden’s pro-labor actions and he told me the following, which has been lightly edited and condensed.

“Honestly, it's a blizzard of Executive Orders and, also, great personnel choices. And firing the union busting National Labor Relations Board general counsel--that is huge! It was the classic fox in the chicken coop situation and you ‘aren't supposed’ to fire the general counsel and Biden canned him the first day.”

“Lots of stuff on COVID protection for workers and other safety and health moves--protecting those particularly vulnerable poultry and meatpacking workers who Trump has let companies exploit. More rights for federal public unions and they are going to shortly set up $15 minimum wage for federal contract workers (something labor has sought since the beginning of the Obama Administration.)” 

“Then on personnel, he appointed a top safety and health guy from the Steelworkers to run OSHA. (Steelworkers safety and health has always had a reputation in the labor movement for being one of the very best, most professional departments.) The Marty Walsh/Julie Su combination at the Department of Labor is terrific. I favored Su for the top job, but I see the logic of a canny pol like Walsh who is friends with Biden and is also a ‘progressive’ white building trades guy (which is a relatively rare combination) at the top. Walsh will be a good ambassador to the white working class and Su is a genius, hell raising activist/technocrat, who is a scourge on misclassification (this is when companies legally define workers, for example, as contractors or part-time workers, in order to deny them benefits and otherwise exploit them regarding debt to the company and brutal hours worked). She will run the place day-to-day, brief Walsh before he speaks to Biden, and generally scour the place of all the terrible decisions/regulations that Scalia's son [Eugene Scalia, former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s son and the outgoing Secretary of Labor under Trump] put in place.”

“Right now, less than a week in, I don't think regarding workers and unions (separate, but related subjects, obviously, but safety and health stuff, is important for all workers, not just unionized workers who, in fact, have some protections in their contracts) that Bernie Sanders could have done any better on these issues. There will always be disappointments, missed possibilities, etc, but, right now, he's firing the right people, hiring the right people, and doing pretty much all the things he can do via Executive Orders to support workers and unions.”

“It's quite striking politically too when you think how, even though union membership has declined so dramatically, Biden and his people seem to recognize that intense support from unions and ‘laborist’ thinking--both politically from unions themselves and intellectually via pro union writers/thinkers--matters.”

You can also check out this NPR interview with Dr. David Michaels, former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to hear more about Biden’s effort’s to improve workplace safety.