Obama calls filibuster ‘Jim Crow relic,’ backs new Voting Rights Act bill

Former President Obama on Thursday called the Senate filibuster rule a “Jim Crow relic” and said it should be ended to help pass legislation that would restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Obama made the remarks while delivering a eulogy for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who died earlier this month at the age of 80. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act would make it harder for states to enact racially suspect voting restrictions.

“Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching,” Obama said. “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.”

The former president’s support for nixing the Senate filibuster — a procedural tactic that requires 60 votes for legislation to proceed — is likely to spark intense political debate. If Democrats win back both the Senate and the White House, they will be under pressure to get rid of the filibuster rule in order to push through high-priority legislation.

Changing Senate rules through a simple majority, a move sometimes referred to as the “nuclear option,” would be highly controversial, and it’s unclear if Democrats would have the political will or the votes needed to end the procedure.

But doing so would give them a better shot of passing measures like the Lewis bill on voting rights, even with a slim majority.

Earlier this month, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden suggested he might support eliminating the filibuster if Senate Republicans were to adopt a hard line on opposing proposals from a prospective Democratic majority.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) embraced the nuclear option in 2017 regarding Supreme Court nominees, lowering the 60-vote threshold to a simple majority. When Democrats controlled the Senate, former Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did the same in 2013 for executive branch nominations and appointments for lower court federal judges.

The Lewis voting rights measure pending in the House is a response to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a 5-4 ruling that struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The provision required states with a recent history of racism at the ballot box to get federal approval — called preclearance — before changing their voting laws.

In the seven years since the court’s ruling lifted the preclearance policy, a number of states passed voting restrictions that legal analysts and some courts have found to have imposed a disproportionate burden on the franchise of minority populations.

“The decision in Shelby County opened the floodgates to laws restricting voting throughout the United States,” a fact sheet from the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice states. “The effects were immediate. Within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce photo ID laws that had previously been barred because of federal preclearance.”

–Updated at 3:51 p.m.

Tags Filibuster Harry Reid Joe Biden John Lewis Lewis funeral Mitch McConnell Nuclear option
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