Senate

Liberals think Biden just made getting rid of the filibuster easier

Senate proponents of filibuster reform said they scored a win Thursday when President Biden said he agrees the procedural tool is “a relic of the Jim Crow era.”

Senators who are the most adamant about eliminating the filibuster argue their job just got easier now that the president himself has associated it with the racist and oppressive policies of the Jim Crow South.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Biden’s remarks from his first press conference as president would increase support in the Democratic caucus for overhauling the filibuster, adding that it’s no longer debatable whether it was a Jim Crow-era instrument.

“I don’t think anybody debates that,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Thursday said “it’s an historic fact” that the filibuster is a Jim Crow-era tool.

Warren said last week the filibuster “has deep roots in racism.”

Biden didn’t explicitly call for eliminating the legislative filibuster at his White House press conference, but he signaled support for progressive critics who want to portray the procedural tactic as tainted by a racist history in their bid to finally get rid of it.

The president’s comments are expected to increase pressure on Senate Democrats to repeal the filibuster when they come back to Washington after their April recess and take up voting rights and civil rights legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) put at the top of his agenda in a letter to colleagues Thursday morning. 

The Senate will soon move to the For the People Act, which would make it easier to vote in federal elections and end congressional gerrymandering, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, legislation to restore protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were curtailed in 2013 by the Supreme Court.

“Too often the filibuster has been used to keep people from rights that they should have as American citizens and we need to ensure that whatever we do on the filibuster that American citizens who have the right to vote have the opportunity to exercise that right,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Republicans are expected to filibuster both bills. If they do, it will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the use of the filibuster in the 1950s and 1960s to oppose civil rights legislation.

Schumer, in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that the For the People Act was necessary to combat new efforts to suppress voters in Georgia and other states.

“Our country has come a long way, supposedly, since African Americans in the South were forced to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to vote. But some of these voter suppression laws in Georgia and other Republican states smack of Jim Crow, rearing its ugly head once again,” he said.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on Thursday signed a broad elections bill into law, tightening voting rules by limiting the use of ballot drop boxes and setting photo ID requirements for absentee voting.

Biden has largely stayed out of the Senate debate over whether to keep or eliminate the filibuster, which requires most bills overcome a 60-vote procedural hurdle before moving to final passage.

Former President Obama struck a blow against the filibuster last year when he called it a “Jim Crow relic” during his eulogy for the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Asked Thursday if he agreed with that characterization, Biden said “yes.”

Biden said the Senate rules are being “abused in a gigantic way” and indicated he may support requiring senators to actively hold the floor to block legislation. 

“I strongly support moving in that direction,” Biden said of requiring senators to stage talking filibusters.

A Senate Democratic aide called Biden’s comments “a step in the right direction,” especially given the president’s familiarity with Senate traditions after serving in the chamber from 1973 to 2009. 

But the aide said the real significance of Biden’s comments will depend on whether they influence the two Democrats most opposed to eliminating the filibuster: centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

“There is no one who with a straight face can look at the history of this issue and the history of this country and not conclude this isn’t an abuse of the system for nefarious purposes,” the aide said of the filibuster. “For Joe Biden to come around and say it, you have to hope that for Joe Manchin who is looking for bipartisanship and compromise will take that seriously.” 

Manchin on Thursday said he didn’t agree with Biden’s view that the filibuster is a legacy of the Jim Crow era.

“I don’t think it’s a Jim Crow [relic], never gonna be a Jim Crow, never was intended” that way, Manchin said.

Manchin instead argued that the filibuster is a tradition of a unique institution where the nation’s Founding Fathers intended for the rights of the minority to be protected from majoritarian sentiment.

“Basically the Senate is made to work differently,” Manchin said. “Why do we have two senators for every state, no matter how large or small? That should you give you the thought process of our Founding Fathers. This is designed to be something different.”

“That means the big guy doesn’t pick on the little guy. I’ve been in the minority, I’ve been in the majority. So that’s all I’m trying to protect is basically civility,” he added.

Sinema told The Hill on Thursday that she had did not have a reaction to share about Biden’s comments. 

The Senate debate over filibuster reform, which has simmered in the upper chamber over the past decade, has become increasingly influenced by the fight for racial justice.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an outspoken defender of keeping the 60-vote threshold for legislation in place, says the filibuster long preceded the civil rights debates of the 1950s and 1960s. 

“The filibuster predates the debates over civil rights. It goes back to the beginning of the country,” McConnell told Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom” in a recent interview.

“The filibuster started well before we got into the civil rights debates that have occurred off and on over the history of the country.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Brian Kemp Charles Schumer civil rights Elizabeth Warren Filibuster filibuster reform Jim Crow Jim Crow era Jim Crow South Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Martin Heinrich Mitch McConnell

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