Could Obama’s call to end Senate filibuster shift the tide?

One previous skeptic, Sen. Bernie Sanders, now on board

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., arrive in the Capitol for a vote on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. Sanders this week warmed to a suggestion by former President Barack Obama to overhaul the Senate's filibuster rules.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., arrive in the Capitol for a vote on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. Sanders this week warmed to a suggestion by former President Barack Obama to overhaul the Senate's filibuster rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 31, 2020 at 10:56am

Former President Barack Obama’s endorsement Thursday of ending the legislative filibuster energized progressive senators and groups who’ve championed the issue and converted one previous skeptic, Sen. Bernie Sanders. But will it provide enough momentum to topple a longtime Senate rule that many view as a pivotal check against partisan politics?

The answer to that question wasn’t immediately clear in the hours after Obama’s remarks at Rep. John Lewis’s funeral in Atlanta, where he said doing away with the 60-vote threshold for legislation may be necessary if Congress is ever going to finish Lewis’s work on voting rights. With the notable exception of Sanders, most of those who celebrated Obama’s comments had already called for such a rule change.

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And the true impact of Obama’s surprise endorsement may not become clear until after the November election. Discussion of further erasing the 60-vote filibuster for legislation, which both Democratic and Republican Senate majorities have eliminated for executive and judicial nominations, will be a moot point if Democrats don’t regain control of the Senate. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear there are no circumstances under which he’d entertain a move to end the legislative filibuster.

But Obama’s framing of the matter as an equal rights issue —announced at the funeral of a beloved civil rights activist at a time when a new generation of Black voices is writing another chapter in the fight for racial justice — could be a game changer if Democrats prevail in November.

Obama, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, brought up the filibuster as he argued that Congress should honor Lewis by updating the 1965 Voting Rights Act to restore parts of the law the Supreme Court struck down and by pushing further overhauls.

His suggestions to Congress included making voter registration automatic, expanding polling places and early voting, establishing Election Day as a national holiday and ending partisan gerrymandering. He also called for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico to be granted statehood so that they can be equally represented in Congress.

“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.

The Democrat-led House has passed bills to make most of the changes Obama has called for, but those measures have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Sanders convinced

Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats and sought to be the party’s presidential nomination, seemed convinced by Obama’s argument. He had resisted calls to end the filibuster during the presidential campaign despite other progressive candidates, most notably Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, endorsing the idea.

“President Obama is absolutely right,” Sanders said in a statement Thursday. “It is an outrage that modern-day poll taxes, gerrymandering, I.D. requirements, and other forms of voter suppression still exist today. We must pass a comprehensive agenda to guarantee the rights and dignity of everyone in this country. And that means, among other things, reauthorizing and expanding the Voting Rights Act, for which Congressman John Lewis put his life on the line. As President Obama said, if that requires us to eliminate the filibuster, then that is what we must do.”

Sen. Tom Udall, a longtime proponent of abolishing the filibuster, tweeted his thanks to Obama.

“The arbitrary, 60-vote filibuster has long been an obstacle to progress, particularly on racial justice and voting rights,” the New Mexico Democrat said.

Those obstacles were erected long before the current Senate majority. Because of the filibuster, civil rights legislation that would occasionally pass the House would die in the Senate. Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia, dean of the “solid South,” formed strategic alliances to block liberal majorities.

“Southerners helped GOP conservatives defeat economic legislation and in return these conservatives, most of them from states without enough black voters to punish them, tacitly refrained from supporting the civil rights legislation anathema to the South, and from breaking southern filibusters,” according to Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, “Master of the Senate.”

But the procedure is probably most closely associated with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. In 1957, the ardently pro-segregation lawmaker performed the longest filibuster in history when he talked for 24 hours in an effort to block a civil rights bill. A watered down version of the bill would pass as the Civil Rights Act of 1957, largely from the efforts of then-Majority Leader Johnson.

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Campaign politics

There have been various efforts to overhaul Senate filibuster rules over the years, including the more recent efforts to lower the threshold needed to advance nominations, but discussion of eliminating the legislative filibuster picked up during the 2020 campaign.

Warren was an early endorser and many other Democratic candidates followed suit, although notably none of her fellow senators running explicitly committed to eliminating it.

Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice president who served more than three decades in the Senate, did not back the idea during the height of the primary contest. Since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, Biden has expressed some openness to the idea but still seemed hesitant.

“It’s going to depend on how obstreperous [Senate Republicans] become,” Biden told the New York Times earlier this month.

Biden went on to note that he’s historically supported the filibuster and was optimistic he could find common ground with Republicans. But he made sure to leave the door open so as not to alienate many in the Democratic base who support the filibuster’s demise.

 “I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it,” Biden said.

Obama remains one of Biden’s closest confidants and he has taken a more active role recently on the campaign trail. So his filibuster remarks will inevitably be linked to Biden, even if the Democrats’ standard-bearer doesn’t take that position himself.  

Fence straddling

Biden is likely to maintain his “we’ll see” approach to avoid alienating more moderate voters. Other Democratic senators have taken similar approaches, including the one that matters most, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

“Nothing’s off the table,” the New York Democrat told reporters earlier this month, cautioning that Democrats have to take back the Senate first.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out an email Thursday trying to tie Democratic candidates to Obama’s remarks.

“Democratic Senate candidates want to give inordinate power to the most extreme voices in their party like ‘The Squad’ that shadow runs the Democrat-led House,” NRSC spokesman Jesse Hunt said in a statement. “Mainstream voters can’t stand what they’re seeing from the woke mob of liberals hijacking cities across America, and these candidates will have to answer for why they want to give them more power.”

As the news of Obama’s comments broke Thursday, most senators were already on their way out of Washington. But the few Democrats who were still around the Capitol to react straddled the fence.

“A lot of us are seriously contemplating that possibility, but I’m not ready to make a commitment at this point,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said.

Asked if the contemplation was related to voting rights or for other reasons, the Illinois Democrat said, “Because the Senate has disintegrated under the abuse of the filibuster by Mitch McConnell.”

Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono cited similar reasoning.

“The filibuster is intended to protect the minority views. But notice that we’re in the minority and our views are not protected at all,” she told CQ Roll Call. “And in fact, [Republicans] just roll over everything. So in order to get things done around here, I would be very open to changing the filibuster.”

Senate Republicans, predictably, were dismissive of Obama’s suggestion.

 “I think it's dangerous and it shows the radical agenda these guys will push through if they gain power,” Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally told CQ Roll Call.

Sen. Rob Portman said eliminating the legislative filibuster would further reduce bipartisanship in an era where it’s almost nonexistent.

 “In terms of passing legislation that is truly good for the country and will last the test of time — meaning that you have some support on the other side of the aisle for it — I think it's important,” the Ohio Republican said. “Rarely does any party have 60 votes. It happened only once recently and that was when we passed some legislation that was strictly partisan and some of that legislation hasn’t fared too well.”

Portman was referring to the first year and two months of Obama’s presidency when Democrats held 60 Senate seats and passed the sweeping 2010 health care law without Republican support.