The Democratic Party’s narrow majority in the U.S. Senate failed to pass voting-rights legislation on Wednesday—a major defeat for the party and President Joe Biden. The effort failed because two centrist Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, joined all 50 Republicans in voting against changing the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. Vice President Kamala Harris said that these senators of elected “to preserve an arcane Senate rule” rather than “to safeguard our democracy and secure the freedom to vote,” while the Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell argued that “nearly every Senate Democrat wrote in permanent ink that they would shatter the soul of the Senate for short-term power.” The episode illustrated a deep frustration among many Democrats and progressive activists with the institutional structure of the Senate, which gives each state two votes, over-representing sparsely populated rural states. Some Democrats argue for abolishing the filibuster altogether, while writers for progressive publications such as The Nation and The New Republic have made cases for abolishing the Senate entirely. Why have the rules and form of the U.S. Senate become so controversial?

Sarah Binder is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a professor of political science at the George Washington University, and the co-author of Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate. Binder says contentious public debate about the American Senate’s structure goes back to 19th century, but contemporary criticism is increasing as heightened partisanship and ideological division cause gridlock on Capitol Hill. Democratic frustration with the Senate is especially acute right now, since the window to pass their agenda will close if they lose unified control of the U.S. government in the midterm elections this year. Binder doubts they’ll be able to enact any meaningful reforms to the legislative body in the short term—or that their desire to do so will persist if Republicans take back power—but she says the existence of the filibuster probably harms Democratic priorities more than Republican priorities, so fights over changes to the Senate are likely to return before long.

Graham Vyse: What’s behind all the conflict about the Senate right now?

Sarah Binder: A number of issues have put a spotlight on the Senate, which typically works by supermajority rules and has been a difficult point of resistance for the agendas of both of America’s major parties in recent years. The parties have become more ideologically polarized, so there are relatively few senators like Manchin for the Democrats or Susan Collins for the Republicans who are in the ideological center. It’s become more difficult to propose policies that get buy-in from both political parties.

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