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Democrats' issue No. 1 in Pennsylvania Senate race: kill the filibuster

Getting rid of the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate is emerging as perhaps the most important issue in Pennsylvania’s competitive Democratic primary for an open Senate seat, as the party struggles to use its majority in Washington to advance its agenda.

Calls to eliminate the filibuster percolated all through last year, and on Tuesday night it was the first question asked to Democratic candidates at a forum hosted by the Enos Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

“There are a number of things we want to address. Right now we are concerned with getting things done,” the Reverend Alyn E. Waller, the church’s senior pastor, told the candidates before asking them whether they support ending or amending the filibuster.

All three candidates in front of Waller vowed to vote to end the filibuster, a limitless debate that can prevent the Senate from voting on legislation unless its members can muster a three-fifths majority vote.

In the 100-member chamber, that means 60 votes are needed to end filibusters against nearly all types of legislation. That included Wednesday night’s blockade of voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders say is vital to protecting democracy.

Jeff Bartos, a Republican candidate for Senate, raised the need to preserve the filibuster when asked last week at a Lawrence County GOP candidates’ forum about his top legislative priorities if elected.

Without the filibuster, “disastrous” bills could become law, Bartos told the crowd, including Democrats’ voting legislation in Congress that Republicans characterize as a way for Democrats to help themselves win elections.

“Rest assured, every Democrat running for this seat will blow up the filibuster on Day One” in office, Bartos said. “So that’s priority number one, to stop mayhem from ensuing.”

The race to replace retiring two-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in bellwether Pennsylvania has drawn deep primary fields in both parties for what is expected to be one of a handful of competitive contests across the country this year to determine control of the Senate.

With President Joe Biden ending his first year in the White House with a clear majority of Americans disapproving of his handling of the presidency, Pennsylvania's next senator may be sworn into a Republican majority.

Still, scrapping the filibuster is an easy call for Democratic candidates to make, with 48 of 50 Senate Democrats in favor of changing it or getting rid of it, including Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

All five Democrats running — including two who were not at Tuesday night's debate — have barely hesitated to say they would vote to kill the filibuster.

“If I’m in the Senate, you can bet your bottom dollar I would vote to get rid of it,” Malcolm Kenyatta, a state lawmaker from Philadelphia, told the crowd.

The filibuster, he said, has long been a tool to protect systematic racism and is preventing the Democratic-controlled Congress from passing high-priority legislation, including the voting bill and police reform legislation.

Val Arkoosh, who chairs Montgomery County's board of commissioners, told the crowd that senators hide behind the filibuster, ensuring they never vote on bills.

“I believe that the filibuster has been a tool of obstruction for decades, I will vote to eliminate the filibuster and I think it is critically important that senators actually vote on legislation,” Arkoosh said. “That is what you elect your elected officials to do.”

Three Republicans running for Senate — Bartos, Carla Sands and Mehmet Oz, the heart surgeon best known as the host of daytime TV’s “Dr. Oz Show” — said Thursday through their campaigns that they would vote to keep the filibuster, even in a Republican majority.

But at Tuesday night's forum for Democrats, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb warned that Republicans would simply get rid of it when it suits them, as they did for nominees to the Supreme Court under former President Donald Trump.

Then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not eliminate it for all legislation, Lamb said, “simply because he didn't want Trump sending him legislation that he didn’t want to pass. It gave him more control.”

Lamb, of suburban Pittsburgh, also attacked the argument that the filibuster encourages compromise between the parties.

It does not, he said.

Rather, Lamb said, it prevents bipartisanship by preventing bargaining and compromise on bills that will not come to a vote because they cannot reach the 60-vote threshold.

“I actually think you would see more bipartisanship without the filibuster than you would see with it,” Lamb said.

Copyright 2022 90.5 WESA

Marc Levy | Associated Press