Which will go first, Cuomo or the filibuster?

Might be the filibuster

Progress toward ending the 60-vote stranglehold on the Senate known as the silent filibuster is happening much faster than even the most optimistic advocates of reform could have hoped. Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin said he was open to moving toward a “talking filibuster” that would put the onus on the minority to actually stay on the Senate floor if they want to obstruct legislation. As it stands today, a single member, with a single objection, can stop a bill in its tracks, and it’s the majority’s responsibility to get 60 votes to move it forward. Sen. Jeff Merkley is now in talks with his colleagues over how exactly the new rules should be written, so that the minority still has a say, but doesn’t have absolute veto power over the Democratic agenda. Merkley’s work persuading his colleagues to reform the filibuster may end up being one of the most consequential, unsung efforts a single senator ever undertook, and he’s been pushing it for more than 10 years. (I interviewed him last month for my podcast on the history and future of the filibuster.)

HR1, the For the People Act, will come before Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Rules Committee later this month, and then head for the Senate floor, where it stands a real chance of passage if the filibuster is reformed, representing the most far-reaching democracy reform since 1965. The PRO Act, meanwhile, passed the House this week, and also stands a chance of winning a majority vote in the Senate. It would be the most sweeping labor rights reform in several generations, and help grow the ranks of unionized workers. These are precisely the kinds of structural changes Democrats have failed to make in the past, but finally recognize as existential in a polarized country where, absent some reforms to make the system more democratic, Republicans can lose the popular vote by millions but still win power. 

It does appear like the Senate has a real chance to end the filibuster as we know it today. If it does, bear in mind that would be nothing radical our outside of Senate precedent. The 60-vote threshold didn’t come into being until a rules change in 1975 -- which means Joe Biden was already a senator before today’s filibuster was put into place. And it didn’t start being deployed in earnest until around 2007. Then it was reformed in 2013 (by Harry Reid) and reformed again in 2017 (by Mitch McConnell). No reason it shouldn’t happen again in 2021. 

Why is this time different for Cuomo?

Throughout Andrew Cuomo’s tenure, he’s been hit with scandal after scandal, but has emerged from each unscathed. His fall from grace has been so stunningly fast it can be hard to make sense of why this time was different for him. Answering that question is the subject of my latest story for The Intercept. In short, as the Working Families Party has chipped away at him over the years and helped elect progressives in place of Cuomo cronies, that set the stage for the sweeping electoral changes of 2018 and 2020, which left him exposed. 

At a news conference on Friday afternoon, a defiant Cuomo rejected the weekslong drumbeat of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. But all around him, New York politicians at both the state and federal level are demanding his resignation, with proceedings launched in the state Assembly that could lead to impeachment.

This time is different because the interlocking system of protection Cuomo had long constructed around himself has been washed away by twin, reinforcing political currents: resistance liberals and democratic socialists, often aligned with either the Working Families Party or Democratic Socialists of America, or both. 

One explanation for Cuomo’s vulnerability has been the removal of Donald Trump from the public scene, finally making space for news that didn’t revolve around him to break through. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain why this time, unlike all his pre-Trump misdeeds, scandals are finally sticking to Cuomo.

Now that so many progressive members of the resistance are paying close attention to New York politics, said one state assembly member who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, the nature of the harassment allegations is playing a role. “It’s their political identity to hold people accountable on this issue,” the member said of the revived Democratic, anti-Trump voters.

Before Trump’s election, Cuomo had built a unique political system in New York in which power flowed upward to him. Republicans controlled the state Senate, significantly thanks to Cuomo, who helped create a renegade band of Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference. The IDC allied itself in the state Capitol in Albany with Republicans, while Cuomo fended off insurgent Democrats’ efforts to unseat Republican senators and reclaim the chamber. The GOP’s control of the upper chamber marginalized the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, creating an obstacle that could be cited for the failure to enact the party’s agenda.

The state Assembly, meanwhile, was run by Speaker Carl Heastie, a Cuomo ally. Cuomo, Heastie, and the GOP Senate leader were known as the “three men in a room” who made all the decisions that mattered. And of those three, Cuomo was by far the most powerful, particularly through the control over the budget New York law gives the governor. Cinching his total control was his reputation for ruthless revenge against anybody who tested his power. Because challenging Cuomo had such a small chance of success and such a high cost, few tried.

Over the years, challenging Cuomo was left to the Working Families Party, which began electing progressives throughout the state. But their alliance with organized labor, and Cuomo’s control of the same, kept them inside the fold, relatively speaking, even as they gave rise to a generation of operatives and politicians who positioned themselves considerably to Cuomo’s left.

The election of Trump in 2016 stunned Democratic voters across the country out of their stupor, and, when they came to, they looked upon the scene in New York and were appalled at what was before them. Thousands of voters researched their elected officials and learned to their surprise that the Democrat they had voted for was in fact openly aligned with Republicans. With Trump in the White House, that could no longer stand.