Harry Reid and the Filibuster: How One Facet of the Late Senator's Legacy Remains More Relevant Than Ever

Reid, who died Tuesday at 82, used the “nuclear option” as Majority Leader and later wrote about his wish to abolish the filibuster in all its forms

harry reid
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty

As friends, family and colleagues remember the late Sen. Harry Reid, who died Tuesday at 82, for his service and leadership in Nevada and the U.S. Senate, one aspect of his legacy is more relevant than ever.

Reid, who passed away after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, retired from the Senate in 2017. But he remained outspoken about his desire to eliminate the filibuster, a procedural rule that increases the threshold of votes needed to pass a measure from a simple majority to 60 votes.

In 2019, Reid wrote an op-ed headlined "The Filibuster Is Suffocating the Will of the American People" in The New York Times, calling on the Senate, where he once led Democrats as majority and minority leader, to "abolish the filibuster in all its forms."

Reid wrote that the use of the rule to block or delay a vote has turned the Senate into a "unworkable legislative graveyard" because minority politicians — Republicans in particular, he said — have used the filibuster to obstruct.

"The Senate is now a place where the most pressing issues facing our country are disregarded, along with the will of the American people overwhelmingly calling for action. The future of our country is sacrificed at the altar of the filibuster," Reid wrote.

Two years later, the filibuster is still widely discussed. Following Reid's death, the current Majority Leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, tied Reid's stance to the current debate. "He saw what was happening to the Senate," Schumer said in an interview with MSNBC. "He was a strong advocate of changing the rules of the Senate, which I hope we carry with us forward in the next few weeks."

Support for a change in the filibuster rule is growing among Democrats, who have been frustrated by its recent use on the part of Republicans to block voting rights legislation three times. With the midterm elections less than a year away, Democrats' sense of urgency has prompted new calls to eliminate the filibuster to protect democracy.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Just last week, President Joe Biden said that he supports a change in the rule for voting rights. "If the only thing standing between getting voting rights legislation passed and not getting passed is the filibuster, I support making the exception of voting rights for the filibuster," he told ABC News' David Muir in an interview on Dec. 22.

Some Democrats would like to do away with the filibuster completely, as Reid suggested, but others see the issue of voting rights as worthy of a "carveout" — or an exception — for the rule.

The latter has been done before — by Sen. Reid.

In 2013, he and his fellow Democrats used the so-called "nuclear option" to get rid of the 60-vote requirement for most judicial appointments. Four years later, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did the same for Supreme Court nominees. He cited Reid's move as the precedent for further change.

Sen. Schumer recently indicated that voting rights legislation will be taken up again soon, perhaps as early as January, The New York Times reported Dec. 20. In a letter to colleagues, he also said the Senate would "consider changes to any rules which prevent us from debating and reaching final conclusion on important legislation."

All 50 Democrat senators would need to vote in favor of changing a rule, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie. But it's unclear if the Democrats can pull it off with two in their party, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, still reluctant.

Related Articles