Biden injects new momentum into filibuster fight
Progressives are feeling emboldened after President Biden backed “fundamentally” changing the filibuster, adding a jolt of momentum into the entrenched Senate stalemate.
Biden’s comments, made during a CNN town hall, come after weeks of activists and liberal lawmakers feeling frustrated that Biden wasn’t leaning into the fight against the Senate rule, which is a major roadblock for many of his administration’s priorities.
The remarks don’t automatically change the math problem — Democrats don’t have 50 votes for changes to filibuster right now — but they are the latest sign of growing pressure on Senate Democrats to reform the rule.
“We think this is a huge step forward and obviously a game changer,” Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Fix Our Senate, told The Hill. “It would be a big disappointment if he made those comments at a town hall and didn’t follow up on them. I think the expectation and hope is that he follows up with significant pressure, public and private.”
Ezra Levin, a co-executive director of Indivisible, said Biden’s comments “builds up pressure for there to be some sort of come-to-Jesus moment after reconciliation.”
“He all but said, ‘I will be pushing key holdouts,’” Levin added.
Biden has long appeared wary of nuking the rules of the Senate, where he served for decades. That’s frustrated progressives, who worry that without nixing, or at least significantly changing, the filibuster, which necessitates 60 votes for most legislation, much of the party’s agenda is dead on arrival in the chamber.
Republicans, for example, blocked a revised election reform bill this week and are poised to block a voting rights bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) when it comes to the floor as soon as next week. Bipartisan talks on issues including police reform, immigration reform and expanded background checks have also unraveled as Democrats have struggled to come up with a deal that could get at least the 10 GOP votes needed to break a filibuster.
Biden had previously embraced the idea of a talking filibuster, where senators objecting to the bill must speak continuously from the Senate floor. But he went significantly further during his town hall in Baltimore.
“I propose we bring that back now, immediately,” Biden said about the talking filibuster before adding: “But I also think we’re going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster.”
Biden pointed to the recent fight over the debt ceiling, where Republicans threatened for weeks that they wouldn’t help advance a debt hike before backtracking and providing 11 GOP votes for a short-term increase.
“If that gets pulled again, I think you are going to see an awful lot of Democrats being ready to say, not me. I’m not doing that again. We’re going to end the filibuster. But it still is difficult to end the filibuster beyond that,” he said.
He added that he was “open to fundamentally altering” the legislative filibuster, including on voting rights and “maybe more.”
Biden’s remarks won immediate praise from progressives and activists.
“Glad to hear [Biden] call to bring back the talking filibuster. If Republicans want to block enormously popular policies like protections for our freedom to vote, they should have to hold the floor and do it in public,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a longtime advocate for Senate rules reforms.
But the remarks don’t immediately change the dynamics within the caucus.
To get rid of the 60-vote legislative filibuster or change it in any way, Democrats need total unity from all 50 of their members plus Vice President Harris to serve as tie-breaker. But Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are opposed to nixing the filibuster, and Manchin, in particular, has voiced opposition to the idea of passing a “carve out” that would exempt specific issues from the 60-vote requirement.
And while Manchin and Sinema are the biggest targets of filibuster angst, several senators are viewed as wary of potentially changing it.
Democrats are also racing to finalize a deal on Biden’s sweeping social spending bill, which they are using arcane budget rules to pass without needing GOP support in the Senate.
Democrats and Biden don’t view it as politically savvy to pressure Manchin, Sinema and others on filibuster reform while at the same time needing their votes on the spending package.
Biden is expected to lean more heavily into the filibuster reform discussions after the spending bill and a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill are through Congress, which Democrats hope they can complete in a matter of weeks.
“If, in fact, I get myself into at this moment the debate on the filibuster, I lose at least three votes right now to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation, on the foreign policy side of the equation,” Biden said during the CNN town hall.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added on Friday that Biden would have more to say “in the coming weeks.”
Democrats also think they are nearing a long-anticipated conversation about what, if anything, they’ll be able to do on changing the Senate’s rules.
Democrats have tried to drive home the message to holdouts within their own caucus that Republicans won’t help them pass top priorities, such as voting rights, by repeatedly bringing bills up to the floor and forcing GOP senators to vote them down.
A recent standoff over the debt ceiling also provided unexpected momentum among Senate Democrats for creating a carve out from the 60-vote rule for legislation related to the nation’s borrowing limit. Congress now has until roughly Dec. 3 to pass a long-term debt ceiling extension.
“There are two senators who have said that they won’t. Although even they might have voted for a carve out on the debt ceiling. It was them telling [Senate GOP Leader Mitch] McConnell that, that led him to, you know, come up with an extension,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
“There are a number of ideas about the way to facilitate passing of a bill like this without abolishing the filibuster,” Kaine added, referring to voting rights legislation. “We’ll start having those discussions ASAP.”
Some of the ideas that have been floated or discussed among Democratic senators, according to senators and sources familiar with the discussions, are passing a carve out for specific issues, changing the requirement from supporters needing to get 60 votes to the opposition needing to put up 41 votes and the idea of a talking filibuster, though there’s confusion within the caucus about how that would work, including what that would mean for the 60-vote threshold. Senators have also floated smaller rules changes such as skipping over an initial 60-vote hurdle that most bills need to overcome to even come up for debate, much less pass the Senate.
But those ideas are fluid and would need support from all 50 Democrats to be enacted.
Filibuster reform advocates acknowledge that while Biden’s support is significant, it might not be enough to win over both Sinema and Manchin.
“It’s Congress for God’s sakes, few people have lost money on betting they’re not going to get something crucial done,” Levin said.
“Our argument has never been once the president gets in, it’s game over, we won,” he added. “It’s just that it is a necessary condition for success. Is it sufficient? Time will tell, but I think there remains a narrow path to victory here.”
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