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Ambitious Climate Plans Might Need a Radical Legislative One: Ending the Filibuster

WASHINGTON — Democrats running for president are promoting historically ambitious plans to fight climate change.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. wants to put a price on greenhouse emissions with the aim of eliminating the United States’ net planet-warming pollution by 2050. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas has proposed spending $5 trillion to promote clean energy and to help communities adapt to global warming. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has centered his entire campaign on addressing climate change, with policies designed to eventually freeze the nation’s fossil fuel production entirely. Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who entered the race on Tuesday, plans to focus his campaign in part on climate change.

But even if a green-minded Democrat wins the White House, dramatic action to reverse climate change could very well require another radical change in Washington: the elimination of the Senate filibuster.

Climate legislation is hardly the only issue that might lead either party to do away with the filibuster, which allows a minority of senators to block most legislation from receiving a vote unless 60 senators agree to cut off debate.

But climate change, with its high stakes, is increasingly being viewed as one of the issues that could finally push Democrats, who remain deeply divided over the filibuster, to kill it off for good, if given the chance.

“Climate change is an existential threat, and there is just no way to deal with climate change without getting rid of the filibuster,” Mr. Inslee said. “You cannot allow an arcane, antebellum, antiquated procedure to block progress.”

[We tracked down the 2020 Democrats and asked them the same set of questions. Watch them answer.]

The debate among Democrats over the future of the filibuster is predicated on a series of dominoes falling in the right direction. In the 2020 elections, they would need to keep the House, flip the Senate and defeat President Trump. But that has not stopped them from talking about it.

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CreditTom Brenner for The New York Times

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has rolled out a series of major policy proposals sure to draw Republican opposition, has also called for destroying the filibuster, saying it has been “used by the far right as a tool to block progress on everything.”

Other candidates, including Mr. O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., say they are open to ending the filibuster. Mr. Buttigieg supports tackling climate change by taxing carbon dioxide pollution, a proposal that would struggle to get any Republican support.

And on the other side of the political spectrum, Mr. Trump, who has seen his own legislative efforts thwarted by Congress, has also repeatedly expressed his desire to do away with the tactic.

The filibuster is a defining characteristic of the Senate because it effectively means that 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, are required to pass most legislation. As a result, at least some bipartisan cooperation is generally needed to get anything done.

But given the bitter divide in Washington over climate change, even if Democrats recaptured a Senate majority next year, it would be nearly impossible for a climate bill to gain enough Republican support to meet the 60-vote requirement.

Supporters of the filibuster say it is essential to make the Senate act as a more deliberative, bipartisan counterweight to the House of Representatives.

In a display of how senators are wary of institutional change, 61 of them signed a letter in 2017 in support of preserving the filibuster, including five of the seven sitting senators now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination: Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

The filibuster has been chipped away at in recent years, with the party in control of the Senate deploying what lawmakers call “the nuclear option” to unilaterally change the chamber’s rules. In 2013, when Senator Harry Reid of Nevada was majority leader, Democrats eliminated the filibuster for most presidential nominees. In 2017, Republicans got rid of it for Supreme Court nominees in order to confirm Mr. Trump’s first nominee to the high court, Neil M. Gorsuch.

CreditLuke Sharrett/The New York Times

The filibuster for legislation could be next. Mr. Reid sees its demise as inevitable.

“I think it’s going to happen sooner rather than later,” he said. “It probably won’t happen in this Congress, but it will happen in the next Congress or the one after that.”

That would transform the institution, Mr. Reid said, but not necessarily for the worse.

“If it came to be, it wouldn’t be the Senate that I knew, but that’s not all bad,” he said. “If the Senate turns into another House of Representatives, things would be determined by a simple majority. That’s what democracy’s all about. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

John Kerry, the former secretary of state and Massachusetts senator, was the lead author of the last major climate change bill that Democrats tried to push through the Senate, in 2010. Despite having majorities in both chambers of Congress and a champion of the bill in the White House, Democrats were forced to abandon the legislation when it became clear it could not muster 60 votes.

[Here’s the latest data on who’s leading the race to be the Democratic nominee.]

Mr. Kerry, who as secretary of state served as a lead broker of the Paris climate change accord in 2015, said he has been reflecting on whether the filibuster needs to be retired — specifically, to clear the way for a climate change bill.

“The Senate’s pretty broken, and this is not a moment to be stuck in the old ways,” he said. Still, he allowed that should the filibuster be dissolved, “It could quickly become a moment of, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’”

Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, raised the prospect of Republicans targeting abortion rights — and Democrats having no recourse in a Senate where the majority rules.

“I have been here to see how frustrated Republicans have been that they have not been able to eliminate what they wanted to with the sweep of a hand,” Mr. Coons said. “When you get rid of the filibuster, you increase the likelihood of huge swings from one party control to the next.”

Asked how the elimination of the filibuster would change the Senate, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, put it bluntly: “I’m out of here, I’ll tell you that. I’m not staying around for that craziness.”

CreditScott McIntyre for The New York Times

Democrats are better positioned to pick up Senate seats in 2020 than they were in 2018, but they still face tough odds in picking up the three seats they need to gain a majority with a Democratic vice president able to cast a deciding vote. There is also no guarantee that a Democratic-led Senate would heed the call of a Democratic president to eliminate the filibuster. After all, Mr. Trump’s pleas on that topic have been repeatedly ignored by his fellow Republicans in the Senate.

This spring, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said the filibuster for legislation was “central to the nature of the Senate” and warned Democrats about the perils of getting rid of it. “I would say to my friends on the far left, think about what might happen the next time the people you’re not for have 51 votes,” he said.

The unfolding debate over changing the Senate’s rules has also revealed reluctance among some Democratic presidential candidates. “I’m conflicted, to be honest with you,” Ms. Harris said in Iowa this year.

Mr. Booker said, “We should not be doing anything to mess with the strength of the filibuster.” And Mr. Bennet said Democrats “have a responsibility to consider everything Republicans could do and undo” if the filibuster did not exist.

A spokesman for Mr. Biden, who spent 36 years as a senator from Delaware before serving as vice president, declined to comment on Mr. Biden’s views about the filibuster.

But it is hard to see how Mr. Biden’s proposed climate plan could succeed where the 2010 bill, which was proposed by President Barack Obama, failed in the Senate. Both plans call for forcing polluters to pay a fee on emissions.

Opponents of the filibuster say it has outlasted its utility.

“Every politician needs to ask themselves, what’s more important: a century-old arcane practice used to hamstring our ability to pass policies, or protecting the world from a humanitarian and ecological crisis?” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesman for Sunrise Movement, the youth activist group that popularized the call for politicians to endorse the Green New Deal.

But Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has personified the conflict over getting rid of the filibuster. He is the sponsor of the Medicare for All Act, the kind of sweeping policy whose path to enactment would likely be eased by the filibuster’s elimination. But he said this year that he was “not crazy” about abolishing it. (He has suggested he would use a different maneuver to pass “Medicare for all” with a simple majority.)

“Whether you’re in the majority or the minority, I think you have to protect minority rights,” Mr. Sanders told HuffPost in April. “I don’t think you just simply can shove everything through.”