Biden support for ‘talking’ filibuster adds to debate among Senate Democrats

Not enough support for doing away with 60-vote threshold on legislation at this point

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., left, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., arrive for a news conference to announce the introduction of the For the People Act. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., left, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., arrive for a news conference to announce the introduction of the For the People Act. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 17, 2021 at 5:29pm

President Joe Biden’s support for reviving the practice of senators having to hold the floor to filibuster legislation was greeted with enthusiasm by supporters of changing the Senate rules, but it didn’t immediately change the contours of the debate within the chamber.

“Although unspecific, President Biden’s remarks are a major shift in his position, so it seems to me, and should spur reform. Clearly, President Biden was encouraging us to reform, even without specifying the exact kind of reform,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Wednesday. “He has given new energy and potential movement to reform efforts.”

Biden, speaking in an interview with ABC News, suggested that the Senate should return to the practice of the “talking filibuster” similar to how it existed until 1972, the year before Biden arrived in the Senate as a 30-year-old freshman from Delaware.

The reality is that the Senate Democratic caucus is not yet close to using the so-called nuclear option to let a simple majority eliminate the 60-vote requirement to invoke cloture — cut off debate — and thus break filibusters on legislation.

The president’s interview came ahead of Senate Democrats introducing their version of sweeping legislation to overhaul voting laws and campaign finance, which some Democrats argue could become the catalyst for changing filibuster rules, at least in a limited form.

“I’m not there yet,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who holds the seat that Biden previously held for 36 years.

“I think the filibuster is an important part of what forces us to compromise and listen to each other and work together here,” Coons told reporters, but he cited voting rights as the kind of issue that could get him to consider supporting filibuster changes.

“Voting is a fundamental part of the democracy,” Coons said. “So I’m weighing what these different proposals are and what they would mean.”

Some of his colleagues voiced the same sentiment.

“If they block a bill designed to strengthen democracy here at home, it seems to me we’d have to get rid of the antidemocratic filibuster that requires a supermajority,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “But you know, I’m out clearly in support of getting rid of the filibuster, but I do think that if [Senate Republicans] block a bill designed to protect voting rights, it will generate more momentum for reforming the filibuster.”

Van Hollen said he understood that there was not a unified view among Democrats on the issue.

“For me, I think we should just move forward now and change the filibuster rule, but I appreciate the fact that many of our colleagues want more of a record of clear obstruction this Congress. And so, when that tipping point comes, I don’t know,” he said.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Wednesday that she planned to hold a hearing on the voting rights legislation next week, with a markup to follow.

“Many of the provisions in this bill have already been adopted across the country in red, blue and purple states, and they have the support of Republican and Democratic governors and election officials,” Klobuchar said of the bill, which she is introducing with Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer. The bill will be designated as S 1 to highlight its importance; the House-passed companion is HR 1.

Separately, Klobuchar said she was completely in favor of changing the filibuster and said she thought the president was demonstrating leadership on the question.

“I think that ... he gets it after what we just did with the highly successful American Rescue Plan, that we can’t wait six months to negotiate pandemic relief, and we have to get things done for the American people. And if the Republicans want to work with us, great, but we just can’t wait two years to get things done,” Klobuchar said. “So rules are blocking us from progress.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is among the skeptics of lowering the vote threshold for cloture, reiterating long-standing concerns about the way in which a unified Republican government might push through a conservative legislative agenda if the filibuster is effectively eliminated.

“I am concerned, that is a factor, one of the reasons why I’m hesitating,” Feinstein said.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has not wavered on the importance of the formal three-fifths vote requirement, saying it’s “where I believe the filibuster is and should be.”

Manchin’s view and a similar commitment from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., were considered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as key to his agreeing in January to the operating procedures for the 50-50 Senate.

“I hope Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema, who have similar views to mine, will stand strong, protect the institution,” McConnell said Wednesday in a Fox News interview. “It’ll be in the best interest of both parties in the long run.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell conducts an interview with Fox News in the Russell Building on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call).

McConnell has previously warned of a “scorched earth” environment on the Senate floor in the event the threshold for legislative filibusters becomes a simple majority, noting how much of the Senate’s business is conducted by unanimous consent. He has suggested that the Democratic caucus may face issues getting a quorum to conduct business in a 50-50 Senate without any GOP support.

Such an effort to thwart a quorum could lead to the seldom seen spectacle of the Senate sergeant-at-arms being dispatched to arrest absent senators, but Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said Wednesday that he does not view McConnell’s threats as particularly relevant.

“Sen. McConnell’s made it very clear he’s promised scorched earth if there was any effort to change the filibuster. He says we won’t be able to vote to turn the lights on in the Senate,” the Illinois Democrat said. “Well, here’s a wake-up call for him: We don’t need the lights in the Senate if we’re not doing any business.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.