President Joe Biden on Thursday agreed with his former boss Barack Obama that the Senate filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era, and he opened the door to eliminating it if Republicans block Democrats’ agenda.
But Biden isn’t ready to go there yet, suggesting Senate Democrats focus first on more obtainable changes like returning to a talking filibuster.
“Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible,” the president said as he fielded several questions on the filibuster at his first news conference since taking office. “Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first.”
Still, Biden took a stronger position on overhauling Senate filibuster rules than he has previously. He reiterated his support for a return to the talking filibuster “in addition to having an open mind about dealing with certain things that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy, like the right to vote.”
Several Senate Democrats have said that if the chamber doesn’t fully get rid of the legislative filibuster, an exception should be made to reduce the 60-vote threshold on voting rights legislation.
Biden for the first time is suggesting he’s warm to that proposal, while also leaving the door open to gutting the filibuster even further if Republicans block other key aspects of his agenda.
“If there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” he said.
In preparation for the filibuster questions, Biden came to the news conference armed with a statistic. He noted that between 1917 and 1971, there were only 58 motions to break a filibuster.
“Last year alone, there were five times that many,” he said. “So it’s being abused in a gigantic way.”
Biden’s reluctance to do away with the filibuster has been just one challenge to Senate Democratic hopes of changing the rules.
The other, arguably bigger, challenge is convincing skeptics within the caucus, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. In a 50-50 Senate, a successful “nuclear” vote to change the rules with a simple majority over GOP opposition would require the support of every single Democrat.
Manchin has said that he will “never” vote to end the filibuster, but he’s been open to changes that preserve the 60-vote threshold, such as forcing senators who want to filibuster to hold the floor. He hasn’t changed his stance after Biden’s remarks and disagreed with the president’s affirmation of Obama’s belief that the filibuster is a Jim Crow relic that was used to stymie racial progress.
“I don’t think it’s a Jim Crow [relic], is never going to be a Jim Crow, was never intended — I don’t think so, but I understand people are looking at it really differently,” Manchin said.
Sinema, consistent with her practice of not talking to reporters in the Capitol, declined to comment on Biden’s remarks.
Biden also raised another possible obstacle: the Senate parliamentarian.
“It’s going to be hard to get a parliamentary ruling that allows 50 votes to end the filibuster, the existence of a filibuster,” he said.
Senate Democrats welcomed Biden’s comments on the filibuster, counting him as an ally in their fight to ensure chamber rules don’t prevent them from enacting their agenda.
“The president has made clear that he understands that the filibuster, as it currently stands, will keep us from doing the work that we were elected to do,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said. “What changes will be made is something that we’ll continue to talk about.”
Newly elected Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock took Biden’s comments as a commitment to getting voting rights laws enacted.
“The president understands, as I do, that the maintenance and integrity of our democracy is much more important than any Senate rule,” he said. “And in a real sense, the Republicans have created this crisis by their scorched-earth approach to winning power by any means, including silencing voices of voters.”
“Scorched-earth” is the same term Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has used to describe a future Senate if the filibuster is eliminated. He’s promised that if Democrats deploy the so-called nuclear option, he and Republicans will block unanimous consent requests needed for even the most routine Senate business.
“What [Biden] needed to do was to send a signal to Mitch McConnell that this remorseless and relentless obstruction was not acceptable,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “And I think he sent a cautious but important signal. And I think it was heartening to the caucus to have that signal.”
Whitehouse declined to state his personal view on what to do about the filibuster, saying what’s important is that all 50 Democrats ultimately come to an agreement. He said Biden’s remarks gave the conference room to reach a consensus.
“So I give him two thumbs up for sending the signal and leaving us the maneuvering room to come to a resolution,” Whitehouse said.
Biden said the Democrats’ “preoccupation with the filibuster is totally legitimate” but they have a lot they can do until they reach a consensus on rules changes. He encouraged Republicans to work with them on legislation.
“I think my Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together or they decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to just decide to divide the country, continue the politics of division,” he said. “But I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to move forward and take these things as they come.”
Biden also dismissed McConnell’s accusations that he’s not lived up to his campaign promise to work in a bipartisan manner.
“I would expect Mitch to say exactly what he said. … I would like Republican, elected Republican support, but what I know I have now is I have electoral support from Republican voters,” Biden said. “Republican voters agree with what I’m doing.”
McConnell, the president said, “ought to take a look at his party.”