D.C. Dispatch: Democrat filibuster plan falters

By: - January 14, 2022 4:41 pm

Sen. Joni Ernst used flip-flops as a prop in a speech opposing a Democrat plan to change the filibuster. (Screenshot of Ernst press conference)

Both Iowa and D.C. are gearing up for snowy weekends. But before the weather hit, Iowa’s delegation in the Capitol weighed in on changing the filibuster, Afghanistan aid, and in-person learning.

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s up with the filibuster?

Senate Democrats had a rough week.

Democratic leadership planned to pass voting rights legislation to create additional federal standards that prohibit states from limiting access to voting. The House passed the proposal along party lines on Thursday.

The bill would make Election Day a federal holiday, allow same-day voter registration nationwide, and set a minimum required number of days for absentee or early voting.

“Passing the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act is critical to protecting the fundamental right to vote in our nation,” tweeted Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat and the only delegate from Iowa to vote in favor. “The Senate must get these bills across the finish line to safeguard our democracy.”

But although Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, they faced a challenge: the filibuster, a rule that requires a 60-vote majority for legislation to pass through the chamber. Republicans have used the filibuster to block voting rights legislation several times last year.

President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer advocated for revising the filibuster and allowing Democrats to pass the bill with only a majority vote.

“We must ask ourselves: if the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?” Schumer wrote in an early January letter.

Iowa’s senators, Republicans Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, both oppose any changes or work-arounds to the filibuster. They argued the filibuster promotes bipartisanship and purposefully slows legislation moving on a party-line basis.

“The 60 votes promotes bipartisanship,” Grassley said on Fox News. “And the function of the Senate was to be a deliberative body, not just let the majority run over the minority.”

“The law of our land would dramatically sway back and forth,” Ernst said. “And the resulting political uncertainty would all but erase what little trust the people have in our governing institutions and lead to even greater political divisions.”

Ernst also accused the Democrats of “flip-flopping” on the filibuster, holding two white flip-flops up during a press conference. She cited Schumer and Biden’s opposition to changing the Senate rules when Republicans held the chamber.

“The only thing that has changed is who’s now in control,” Ernst said.

On Thursday, the efforts to change the filibuster came to a stand-still, as Arizona Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced she would not support removing the rule.

“Eliminating the 60-vote threshold on a party line with the thinnest possible majorities to pass these bills that I support will not guarantee that we prevent demagogues from winning office,” she said, calling the filibuster “a critical tool” to protect democracy.

Grassley praised Sinema’s speech, again emphasizing the importance of bipartisanship in the Senate.

Ernst and Grassley ask for Afghanistan aid oversight

Ernst and Grassley joined 13 of their colleagues this week in seeking increased oversight of hundreds of millions of humanitarian aid dollars the United States is sending to Afghanistan.

Grassley asks questions

Grassley is looking for answers in 2022. This week, Iowa’s senior senator made inquiries into multiple subjects, including:

Grassley also co-sponsored a Republican bill that would impose sanctions on China if the Chinese government “refuses to allow a credible and comprehensive international investigation into the origins of COVID-19.”

The Biden administration announced Tuesday it would provide $308 million of assistance “directly to the Afghan people” with the help of aid workers, the U.S. Agency for International Development said in a press release. That will include food, health care and winter supplies of shelters, heaters, blankets and clothes.

 The senators contend that licenses issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in December might allow Taliban leaders who control the country to siphon part of the recently announced aid for themselves.

 “These waivers allow money to flow through the Taliban and the Haqqani Islamic terrorist network in hopes that it will aid the Afghan people who are suffering,” Ernst said Thursday. “I’m very concerned these waivers are lacking adequate control or accountability mechanisms to ensure U.S. taxpayer money doesn’t end up in terrorist coffers.”

 The senators penned a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen this week that seeks the total amount of U.S. aid collected by the Taliban and Haqqani Network — which was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 — among other information.

Iowa receives $86 million for bridges

Iowa will receive $86.4 million from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Axne announced Friday. The funds will be used to repair bridges.

“Iowa leads the nation in structurally deficient bridges – but with this new funding from our bipartisan infrastructure law reaching Iowa, we have the opportunity to instead lead the nation in revitalized bridges and restored confidence in our commutes and commerce,” Axne said in a statement.

Hinson again proposes in-person learning bill

Rep. Ashley Hinson again proposed legislation that would withhold federal COVID-19 grants to schools that do not have a plan for in-person learning. 

“Virtual learning means we are leaving behind our most vulnerable students. Our rural students. Our students with additional learning challenges,” she said. “And even the kids who have every virtual advantage are struggling.”

Hinson first proposed the measure in February 2021. Democrats blocked it then, and blocked it again on Tuesday.

— Jared Strong contributed to this report.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.