In Sinema’s speech, a warning and a path forward

The difficult act of bipartisan conversation leads to lasting results

A bipartisan group of Senators, including Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, meet with White House aides to negotiate an infrastructure package in the Capitol in Washington on June 22, 2021. This kind of cooperation, Sen. Thom Tillis, writes, is key to lasting, positive public policy.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A bipartisan group of Senators, including Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, meet with White House aides to negotiate an infrastructure package in the Capitol in Washington on June 22, 2021. This kind of cooperation, Sen. Thom Tillis, writes, is key to lasting, positive public policy. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 21, 2022 at 6:00am

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s floor speech last week announcing her opposition to weakening the filibuster predictably infuriated many congressional Democrats and sparked jubilation among many congressional Republicans for halting one of the left’s top legislative priorities.

By focusing on the short-term political outcome, my congressional colleagues, and their Democratic and Republican bases, run the risk of missing the fundamental point of Sen. Sinema’s speech: a dire warning about the future of hyperpartisanship.

Sen. Sinema accurately diagnosed a “disease of division” afflicting the nation, highlighting how partisan nuclear actions on the part of politicians have weakened our institutions and sowed more division everywhere, from the halls of Congress to dinner tables across America. 

“Nearly every party-line response to the problems we face in this body, every partisan action taken to protect a cherished value, has led us to more division, not less,” Sinema noted. “The steady escalation of tit for tat weakens the guardrails of the Senate and excludes input from the other party, furthering anger and resentment.”

While Democrats and Republicans have both been frustrated with the use of the filibuster at times, the legislative tool has served as a guardrail because it prevents a majority party from dragging the nation too far to the left or right.

The 60-vote threshold fulfills the Senate’s role as the “cooling saucer of democracy,” necessitating bipartisanship, compromise, and moderation to pass legislation. This is something we need more of, not less. 

Eliminating the filibuster would be an unmitigated disaster both parties would ultimately regret. It would transform the Senate into a rubber-stamp for the party in power and pave the way for a future president to become a despot.

In the face of withering pressure and attacks from their own party, Sens. Sinema and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., have been resolute in their opposition to weakening the filibuster, ensuring the guardrails remain in place for now.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for dozens of their Democratic colleagues, who vocally opposed weakening the filibuster when Donald Trump was president, only to cynically reverse their position once Joe Biden was elected and their base demanded it.

While 29 Republicans senators, including myself, signed a letter opposing changing the filibuster when Trump was president, some Republicans are now refusing to keep nuking the filibuster off the table in the future. 

That is because Republicans will inevitably once again control the White House and both chambers of Congress. At which point, some Republicans will declare, “Democrats came close in 2021, so we must nuke the filibuster before they get another chance.”

Like the liberals today, they will be the darlings of the party, they will go on their favorite cable news shows calling for the nuclear option, they will threaten primaries of members dedicated to saving the Senate, and they will raise lots of money calling for the destruction of the foundation of our unique and exceptional democracy.

My fellow senators on both sides need to stop the situational principles and threats to end the filibuster and instead start putting the long-term health of the country over the short-term ambitions of their political party.

And that gets to the main point of Sen. Sinema’s speech.

Our country and our government are deeply divided, which makes it easy for politicians on both the left and right to bend to the demands of their bases and never get out of their comfort zones.

It makes it easy for them to openly embrace proposals once considered extreme, like eliminating the filibuster, because their only consideration of “lasting consequence” is how what they say or what they do will impact how they perform in the next primary.

On the other hand, it is difficult for elected officials to get out of their comfort zones by talking to the other side and finding common ground. It is difficult for elected officials to defend institutions when doing so runs counter to the desired political gain of their own parties. Doing so invites harassment and accusations of treason, as we see Sen. Sinema shamefully being subjected to from her fellow Democrats.

However, doing the hard thing is what produces results.

Last year, while the Biden administration and Democratic leaders pushed their partisan “Build Back Better” spending plan, a bipartisan group of senators was working on a different path to modernize our nation’s infrastructure. 

Democratic senators in the group were attacked by the far-left for deviating from their progressive policy demands and putting the “Build Back Better” plan in jeopardy. Republican senators were attacked by the far-right for being willing to find common ground with the other side. 

The senators ignored the noise and worked together in good faith, achieving a bipartisan infrastructure package that will rebuild our nation’s roadways, highways and bridges. 

That was Congress working at its best. And we have more opportunities on the horizon.

While Democratic leaders are pushing their partisan voting legislation and using increasingly charged rhetoric to demonize opponents, a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Sinema and myself, are starting a dialogue.

Simply by holding a conversation, we have identified common ground and ideas both parties can get behind. We all want to see increased voter participation, prevent voter fraud, and reform the antiquated Electoral Count Act of 1887.

Because of the principled stand taken by Sens. Sinema and Manchin, bipartisan consensus is the only path forward on voting legislation and critical issues Congress needs to address, from immigration to inflation.

It is likely that extreme ideologues will relentlessly criticize and even actively try to sabotage any future bipartisan efforts, preferring no outcome rather than a less-than-perfect one.

The next several months will be telling because they will reveal which elected officials came to Congress to make a partisan point, and which ones came to Congress to actually make a difference.

Sen. Thom Tillis is a Republican representing the state of North Carolina. He serves on the Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, Banking and Judiciary committees.