Biden’s silence on filibuster strains Democrats’ patience
President Biden gave an impassioned speech this week on democracy and protecting the right to vote, but Democratic strategists and activists say it’s something he failed to mention — namely filibuster reform — that could cost him.
“This is really the first place that Biden risks losing the base,” said one top Democratic strategist.
“It’s no accident that it’s the issue of voting rights. I think Black voters feel like ‘we did the hard work and got you elected’ and want to make sure that the president stays true to his commitments,” the strategist added.
On Tuesday in Philadelphia, Biden said unequivocally that preserving Americans’ “right to vote freely” is top of mind for his administration. He urged members of Congress to pass the For the People Act in order to do that, a call that comes as GOP-led states across the country are advancing election reforms that critics say amount to open voter suppression.
Democrats agree that his rhetoric and delivery were forceful. He used phrases such as “absolutely extraordinary” to describe the hurdles some voters faced simply to cast their ballots last year. They credited it as a first step of leadership toward reversing a dangerous threat.
But some say it lacked the natural follow-up needed to actually pass the bill before lawmakers.
Without moving Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) to abandon their defense of the Senate’s legislative filibuster, the legislation will not advance.
“The silence was deafening on the filibuster question that would make it a reality,” said Joseph Geevarghese, who leads the left-wing group Our Revolution.
“We will not have voting rights legislation unless we have filibuster reform,” agreed Stasha Rhodes of Just Democracy. “You can’t talk about the problem without talking about the solutions. We know the White House sees this as a problem. Our goal is that they share the same level of urgency. But we have to hear how.”
“If now is not the time, then when?” Rhodes added. “Voting rights is connected to everything we care about.”
Geevarghese, Rhodes and other activists emphasized that their work to get Biden and the two Senate moderates to commit to a forward-looking blueprint does not stop after one speech.
The White House has effectively shuffled the question about how to handle the filibuster to the upper chamber. Press secretary Jen Psaki recently called it a “legislative process tool” that’s “important” and “warrants debate.” But she stopped short of taking a stance about any future tweaks, saying that “determination about making changes will be made by members of the Senate, not by this president or any president.”
Other legislation around immigration reforms and gun safety background checks has already passed the House, as has a special commission to investigate the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. They too, however, haven’t been able to survive the existing filibuster.
Some Democrats say the For the People Act should be especially important for Biden, given how he rose to the front of the 2020 presidential primary. After low finishes in early and mostly white primary states, Black voters in South Carolina showed their support for him in droves. He easily won subsequent contests with more diverse constituencies.
That South Carolina victory came after a key endorsement from House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who last week called on Biden to back filibuster reform specifically in the name of voting rights.
“The president moving out on this, rhetorically, is important. It signals to the base to keep fighting on this issue,” Geevarghese said.
Voters in Arizona, Georgia and Texas — states with sizable minority populations — are now among those facing new restrictions to the ballot box.
The Democratic National Committee amplified Biden’s condemnation of such measures in an email blast after his address, zooming in on elected Democrats in Texas who protested GOP election reform by fleeing the state.
While Democrats’ concerns about safeguarding democracy are loud and shared widely, they also come as other major legislative actions they support inch through Congress. The conversation on voting rights is quite literally happening as Biden looks to deliver on a massive infrastructure plan, including a multitrillion-dollar package specifically designed to skirt the filibuster.
“Making sausage is never easy or fun to watch,” said Kelly Dietrich, who founded the National Democratic Training Committee.
“We as progressives are seeing an incredibly adept Biden move an agenda though an incredibly tight Congress. By racking up wins, you can help give room to those senators who may not feel comfortable coming right out of the gate on these issues,” Dietrich added.
“Specifically, we’re talking about Manchin. We’re talking about Sinema,” he said.
In Dietrich’s view, “wins” on both spending bills would theoretically make it easier for the centrist duo to “brag” to voters in West Virginia and Arizona about how much Biden has been able to accomplish during his administration. They would then possibly be able to justify an otherwise delicate vote on the For the People Act, he said.
Progressives on Capitol Hill, including top leaders in both chambers, spent much of the week promoting the Senate’s work to reach a $3.5 trillion budget deal while also backing a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan.
Both measures would advance some items on progressives’ wish lists by providing more money to areas like climate, education and various social safety net initiatives. Liberal officeholders are now trying to ensure that those items are well funded in the final version.
“Most groups right now are through the roof with how Biden is delivering on infrastructure and care,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic operative.
While the lack of specifics in Biden’s speech concerned some early in the week, many on the left appeared willing to give the president credit toward the end for shepherding the big spending bills. The both-and approach showcases what some Democrats say is a natural tension between demanding action in one area and giving kudos in another.
It’s certainly not unique to the Biden era. But the style has become more pronounced as progressives get better organized and more vocal with their requests.
“It always happens with every administration that groups will still disagree with you on some issues and aren’t going to hold back on it,” Vale said. “Even if they’re happy with nine out of 10 other things happening.”