President Joe Biden says he wants the U.S. Senate, where he served for 36 years, to make it harder but not impossible to block legislation through a tactic unique to the chamber known as the filibuster.
A week ago, Biden won the first major legislative victory of his presidency, passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief deal, under legislative rules that allowed that particular bill to be approved on a simple majority vote — solely with the votes of Biden’s Democratic colleagues over uniform Republican opposition.
While a simple majority always suffices in the House of Representatives, most bills can pass the 100-member Senate only with a 60-vote supermajority. The Senate's current political split of 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats requires Biden to win support from 10 Republicans to pass major legislation going forward.
With the filibuster in place allowing Republicans to block Senate votes, Biden would have difficulty passing much of his agenda, such as national standards for voting rights, a $15-an-hour national minimum wage and tougher anti-pollution rules.
Both sides have used tactic
As a result, many Senate Democrats are calling for elimination of the filibuster, the legislative tactic that lawmakers of both parties have used when in the minority to prevent the chamber from proceeding to a final vote on legislative proposals.
Biden has long said he is opposed to getting rid of the filibuster, a distinctive difference between the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
But on Tuesday, Biden said in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopolous that he realizes he faces a quandary in preserving the use of the filibuster in the Senate or advancing his legislative agenda.
The solution, according to Biden, is to force opponents of a bill to speak for hours or even days on the Senate floor. Currently, a senator need only object to proceeding to a vote to trigger the 60-vote threshold, a tactic that was once rare but has become the norm in recent years.
“Here's the choice,” Biden said. “I don't think you have to eliminate the filibuster. You have to do what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days when … you had to stand up and command the floor, and you had to keep talking along. You couldn't call for, you know — no one could say, you know, ‘Quorum call.’ Once you stopped talking, you lost that and someone could move in and say, ‘I move the question of ... .’ So, you’ve got to work for the filibuster.”
Stephanopoulos asked, “So you're for that reform? You're for bringing back the talking filibuster?”
“I am,” Biden replied.
Not working well
The president said that as it stands now, “democracy's having a hard time functioning” with the frequent declarations of a filibuster, minus the talkathons of yesteryear.
Whether the Senate adopts any reforms is an open question. At least two of the 50 Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — say they are opposed to abandoning the filibuster, although Manchin says he is open to reforms that would make it more difficult to employ the tactic to block legislation.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats in an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday against elimination of the filibuster to approve a liberal agenda of laws and promised that if they did, Republicans would retaliate with passage of their favored measures when they again are in control.
As it stands now, Democrats, voting as a unified bloc along with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, can pass some measures on a 51-50 vote. Doing away with the filibuster — and the 60-vote supermajority required on many measures — would clear the path for Democrats to take total control of legislation they uniformly favor.
McConnell said Democrats should think twice before proceeding on that path.
“Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like” without the filibuster, McConnell said. “None of us have served one minute in the Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent.”
McConnell quoted “one of my colleagues” from a 2017 speech as saying, “The legislative filibuster is the most important distinction between the Senate and the House. Without the 60-vote threshold for legislation, the Senate becomes a majoritarian institution, just like the House, much more subject to the winds of short-term electoral change. No senator would like to see that happen.”
He identified the speaker as Senator Chuck Schumer, now the Democratic majority leader, who is under pressure from some of his colleagues for filibuster reform to advance Biden’s agenda.