Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer surrendered on late Thursday night and sent senators back to their home states for the long weekend, missing his deadline to pass voting legislation by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
And it’s unclear how he will pass the measure even after Joe Biden put the weight of the presidency behind it.
Schumer had vowed to keep the Senate in session all weekend to try and meet his goal but ultimately conceded to factors that were leading to its defeat: Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema doubling down on their opposition to killing the filibuster, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz is out through Sunday after testing positive for COVID, and a massive snow storm is forecast for the Washington D.C. area on Sunday.
But, the Majority Leader vowed, he will start debate on a massive voting rights package on Tuesday.
He has canceled next week’s schedule recess to bring senators back to Washington for the debate. And he renewed his promise to call a vote to kill the filibuster if Republican senators use that legislative tool to try and block the bill.
‘Due to the circumstances regarding COVID and another potentially hazard winter storm approaching the DC area this weekend, the Senate will adjourn tonight,’ Schumer said late Thursday night, his voice sounding hoarse.
‘We will return on Tuesday to take up the House-passed message containing voting rights legislation. Make no mistake, the United States Senate will for the first time this Congress debate voting rights legislation.’
‘If the Senate Republicans choose obstruction over protecting the sacred sacred right to vote – as we expect them to – the Senate will consider and vote on changing the Senate rules, as has been done many times before, to allow passage of voting rights legislation.’
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer surrendered on late Thursday night and sent senators back to their home states for the long weekend
It’s unclear how Schumer will get voting legislation over the finish line, which leaves President Biden’s dream of federal voting laws in tatters.
The president put all his powers of persuasion behind this effort. He went to Capitol Hill to personally lobby Manchin and Sinema. When the two stuck to their guns in favor of the filibuster – Biden needs all 50 Democratic senators to vote to kill it – he brought them to the White House Thursday night for another round of talks.
The meeting between the president and the two rogue senators was ‘candid and respectful,’ as Biden made a last-ditch effort to change the moderates’ minds on filibuster reform.
They met at the White House on Thursday evening for a little over an hour, with the meeting ending by 7 p.m.
‘The President hosted Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema at the White House tonight for a candid and respectful exchange of views about voting rights,’ a White House official later said.
The meeting came after Sinema and Manchin took turns earlier on Thursday dashing Biden’s hopes for the massive voting package, which would make Election Day a holiday, reform the redistricting process and tighten campaign finance laws.
Republicans oppose a federal law, saying elections should be handled on the state level.
President Joe Biden invited Sen. Joe Manchin (pictured) to the White House Thursday night in a last-ditch effort to change the West Virginia Democrat’s mind of editing the filibuster to let voting rights bills go through the Senate using just a simple majority
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema gave a speech on the Senate floor in support of the filibuster, which President Joe Biden wants the Senate to reform, prior to his visit Thursday afternoon to Capitol Hill. He invited her to the White House on Thursday night
Before inviting the two rogue senators to the White House Thursday night, President Joe Biden paid them a visit on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon. Afterward, Sen. Joe Manchin said he remained in support of the filibuster
Biden spent over an hour with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill Thursday to try and convince Manchin and Sinema to support removing the filibuster for voting rights legislation.
But Sinema dealt a death blow before that meeting when she went to the Senate floor to deliver a defiant defense of the legislative tool.
Manchin waited until after Capitol Hill meeting to issue a lengthy statement explaining his opposition to killing the filibuster.
‘I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,’ he said. ‘The filibuster plays an important role in protecting our democracy from the transitory passions of the majority and respecting the input of the minority in the Senate.’
Manchin’s blow capped off a tough 48 hours for the Biden administration.
Besides the voting legislation loss on Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down Biden’s testing or vaccine mandate for businesses with over 100 employees. On Wednesday, inflation hit a 40-year high of 7 per cent and a Quinnipiac poll found the president’s approval rating at an all-time low of 33 per cent.
In his explanation for his decision, Manchin quoted his former colleague, the late Senator Robert Byrd, a beloved figure in Senate history.
‘We must never, ever, ever, ever tear down the only wall, the necessary fence, that this nation has against the excesses of the executive branch and the resultant haste and tyranny of the majority,’ Manchin noted Byrd said of the filibuster.
In the closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, Biden spoke for about 15 minutes and then took questions, including some from Manchin, according to Democratic Senator Tim Kaine.
‘At least 15 senators, asked questions or spoken, engaged and back and forth,’ Kaine said.
After the meeting concluded, Biden conceded he doesn’t know how voting rights legislation will be passed without Manchin and Sinema on board but vowed ‘as long as I have breath in me’ he will fight.
‘I don’t know that we can get it done but I know one thing, as long as I have a breath in me, as long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all – I’m going to be fighting,’ he said.
President Joe Biden conceded he doesn’t know how voting rights legislation will be passed but vowed ‘as long as I have breath in me’ he will fight
President Joe Biden leaves Capitol Hill after his meeting with Senate Democrats – and without a clear path forward on voting rights legislation
President Biden speaks to reporters after his meeting with Senate Democrats; his administration suffered from a tough 48 hours
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declined to talk about next steps on voting rights legislation
Senator Joe Manchin’s statement on his support for filibuster
‘In May 2010, just a month before he died, Senator Robert C. Byrd was asked by then-Chairman Chuck Schumer to testify about the filibuster before the Senate Rules Committee because of his ‘unsurpassed knowledge’ on the subject. Senator Byrd began by quoting James Madison. Madison said that the purpose of the Senate was ‘first, to protect the people against their rulers, secondly, to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves may be led,’ and that the Senate serves as a ‘necessary fence against such danger.’ Senator Byrd testified that, ‘the right to filibuster anchors this necessary fence.’ He concluded with, ‘We must never, ever, ever, ever tear down the only wall, the necessary fence, that this nation has against the excesses of the executive branch and the resultant haste and tyranny of the majority.’
‘Senator Byrd’s insight helped explain why at no time in the history of the United States has the Senate been able to end debate on legislation with a simple majority. To be clear, prior to 1917, there was no mechanism for ending debate in the Senate. Even after the cloture rule came into effect 105 years ago, it has never provided that debate on legislation could be ended by a simple majority vote. This has been the case even as the nation has faced a multitude of national crises, including depression and war.
‘Throughout the last decade or more, there has been broad bipartisan support for protecting the filibuster, including current and former members of the Senate. Just four years ago, sixty-one Senators, thirty-three of which were Democrats, sent a letter to Senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell warning them of the dangers of eliminating the filibuster. That letter presented a united front committed to, ‘preserve the ability of members to engage in extended debate when bills are on the Senate floor.’ While some of them have changed their position, I have not. Respect is a two-way street – I respect that they have changed and I would hope they respect that I have not. The ability to debate and do the hard work to find consensus between to two parties is more important for our country now than ever before with the Senate evenly divided.
‘While many try to ignore this history, they do so without fully understanding the long-term institutional and democratic damage this will do to the Senate and our nation. Allowing one party to exert complete control in the Senate with only a simple majority will only pour fuel onto the fire of political whiplash and dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart – especially when one party controls both Congress and the White House. As such, and as I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.
‘The filibuster plays an important role in protecting our democracy from the transitory passions of the majority and respecting the input of the minority in the Senate. Contrary to what some have said – protecting the role of the minority, Democrat or Republican, has protected us from the volatile political swings we have endured over the last 233 years. The role of the minority is what ensures the policies of our nation have input from all corners of the country. We must never forget that the Senate governs for all 50 states, not just red or blue states.
‘For those who believe that bipartisanship is impossible, we have proven them wrong. Ending the filibuster would be the easy way out. I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country by putting politics and party aside. It is time we do the hard work to forge the difficult compromises that can stand the test of time and deliver on the promise of a brighter tomorrow for all Americans.’
Biden spent a little over an hour meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill but left without a clear path forward to pass a massive federal package of voting legislation.
‘We missed this time,’ Biden conceded about Democratic efforts to fight laws passed in GOP-controlled states.
‘We missed this time, and the state legislative bodies continue to change the law, it’s not about who can vote, but who gets to count the vote.’
His voice grew louder as he repeated his phrase: ‘Count the vote. Count the vote. It’s about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote.
Biden made the personal appearance to lobby Democrats on voting rights legislation but his plea may come in vain after Simena made it clear she will not support his call to kill the filibuster.
‘It is clear that the two parties strategies are not working, not for either side and especially not for the country,’ Sinema said in a 19-minute speech on the Senate floor, before the meeting with Biden.
Her decision essentially killed Democratic efforts to pass voting legislation – despite a procedural gamble from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the heavy lobbying from Biden and an impassioned plea from Barack Obama.
Republicans praised her for saving the Senate.
Schumer, after the meeting, praised Biden for coming but declined to say what the next steps are.
He needs all 50 Democratic senators on board to proceed.
With Sinema and Manchin staying at a ‘no’ on killing the filibuster and Senator Brian Schatz quarantining after testing positive for COVID, Schumer is down to 47 votes.
The tone and stage for Biden’s meeting was set about an hour before his arrival on Capitol Hill when Sinema took to the Senate floor to give a defiant speech that praised the power of the filibuster.
Manchin described her remarks as ‘excellent.’
‘Very good. Excellent speech,’ he told reporters on Capitol Hill
And Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Sinema ‘saved’ the Senate and called her speech an act ‘conspicuous of political courage.’
‘She saved the Senate as an institution,’ he said.
Schumer didn’t comment on Sinema.
But Dick Durbin, the number two in Senate Democratic leadership, said he was ‘disappointed but not surprised’ in Sinema.
In her remarks, Sinema decried the divisive politics in the nation and said it has led to anger among lawmakers and their constituents alike.
She called on the Senate to work together on bipartisan legislation that both parties can support.
‘Our mandate, it seems, evident to me: work together and get stuff done for America,’ Sinema said in her speech on the Senate floor.
‘We must address the disease itself, the disease of division, to protect our democracy, and it cannot be achieved by one party alone,’ she said.
‘The response requires something greater and, yes, more difficult than what the Senate is discussing today.’
She said, given the even 50-50 split in the Senate, Democrats need to get buy in from Republicans to pass legislation.
‘When one party needs to only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes,’ she said.
She called the filibuster a ‘guardrail’ that protects the political center, which ‘ensures that millions of Americans, represented by the minority party have a voice in the process.’
‘The steady escalation of tip for tat, in which each new majority weakens the guardrails of the Senate and excludes input from the other party, furthering resentment and anger, amongst this body, and our constituents at home,’ she said.
She made it clear she supports the voting rights legislation that Democrats are pushing but not at the expense of killing the filibuster.
‘Eliminating the 60 vote threshold on a party line with the thinnest of possible majorities to pass these bills that I support will not guarantee that we prevent demagogues from winning office. Indeed, some who undermine the principles of democracy have already been elected. Rather, eliminating the 60 vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy from threats in the years to come,’ she said.
She called for lawmakers to ‘lower the political temperature and to seek lasting solutions.’
Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema made it clear on Thursday she will not support a call from her party leaders to kill the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Sinema ‘saved’ the Senate
Her remarks came after the House passed a voting rights bill on Thursday and sent it to the Senate as part of a procedural gambit to allow Schumer to bypass a Republican fillibuster in order to start debate on the legislation.
The House passed the measure 220-203 party-line vote. The move buys time as Schumer and other Democratic leaders try to persuade Manchin and Sinema to join them in changing Senate rules to kill the filibuster on the voting legislation.
Schumer’s gamble may not have paid off anyway, as he ultimately need 10 GOP senators in his corner to bring the bill up for final passage, which requires 60 votes.
Republicans are united in their opposition, arguing elections should be run on the state level instead of on a national one.
Schumer, in a memo to lawmakers on Wednesday, outlined his plan to get voting legislation signed into law.
To maneuver around Senate Republican opposition, the House brought up an unrelated NASA bill.
In place of the NASA language, the House swapped in the combined text of the two voting bills being held up in the Senate: the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights bill.
After it passed the Democratic-controlled chamber, Speaker Nancy Pelosi shipped it to the Senate as a ‘message’ from the House.
Because it will be categorized as a ‘message between the houses,’ Schumer can skip the 60-vote threshold needed to start debate, allowing him to bypass Republicans’ vow to filibuster.
That will allow debate to begin on the legislation.
‘Then the Senate will finally hold a debate on voting rights legislation for the first time in this Congress, and every Senator will be faced with a choice of whether or not to pass this legislation to protect our democracy,’ Schumer said on the Senate floor on Thursday.
However, it doesn’t guarantee the legislation will get passed.
When debate on the bill concludes, Schumer will still need 60 votes to file cloture to end debate on the bill – that means he needs 10 GOP senators on board.
Republicans can use their filibuster power then to stop the legislation its tracks.
At that point, Schumer will have to decide whether to invoke the ‘nuclear option’ – which is to change the Senate rules to have the bill proceed with a simple majority instead of 60 votes.
If he goes nuclear, that is when he needs all 50 Democrats to support it in the evenly-divided Senate. Harris would act as the tie breaker.
He has indicated that is what he will do.
‘Of course, to ultimately end debate and pass anything, we will also need 10 Republicans to join us ultimately on cloture,’ Schumer said on Thursday.
‘If they don’t, we will be left with no choice but to consider changes to Senate rules so we can move forward, and changing Senate rules has been done many times before in this chamber. This is not the first, second or third time that this is happening,’ he added.
‘All of us must make a choice about whether or not we will do our part to preserve our democratic republic in this day and age.’
The House passed a voting rights bill on Thursday and sent it to the Senate
Biden’s voting rights push: What’s in the John Lewis Act and the Freedom to Vote Act
The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act together would make Election Day a holiday, expand access to mail-in voting and strengthen U.S. Justice Department oversight of local election jurisdictions with a history of discrimination.
Republicans oppose federal laws on voting, arguing elections should be run on a state level. Democrats are pushing the bills to combat a slew of new state laws in GOP-controlled states that they claim hurt voting rights access, particularly among people of color, and would help nullify election results.
The two pieces of legislation were combined into a single bill. The House passed the single bill on Thursday and sent it to the Senate for consideration.
Because the bill will be categorized as a ‘message between the houses,’ Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer can skip the 60-vote threshold needed to start debate, allowing him to bypass Republicans’ vow to filibuster.
That will allow debate to begin on the legislation. However, it doesn’t guarantee the legislation will get passed. When debate on the bill concludes, Schumer will still need 60 votes to file cloture to end debate on the bill – that means he needs 10 GOP senators on board.
Republicans can use their filibuster power then to stop the legislation its tracks.
Here is what is in the legislation:
The Freedom to Vote Act is a slimmed down version of the House-passed For the People Act, a massive Democratic bill on on voting rights, campaign finance, and federal ethics.
After Senate Republicans filibustered the For the People Act in the Senate in June, a group of Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin, drafted the Freedom To Vote Act.
But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has called the act an attempt by Democratic lawmakers ‘to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America.’
The legislation would require:
- Making Election Day as a federal holiday.
- Creating a national standard on elections: A set of standards for federal elections to ensure that voters have similar access to the ballot box across the country.
- Online, automatic, and same-day voter registration.
- A minimum of 15 days of early voting, including during at least two weekends.
- No-excuse mail voting with ample access to ballot drop boxes and online ballot tracking, in addition to streamlined election mail delivery by the US Postal Service.
- States would need to accept a wide range of forms of non-photographic identification in places where ID is required to vote.
- Counting eligible votes on provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
- Restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies.
- Imposes stricter regulations on voter list maintenance that make it harder for states to remove eligible voters from the rolls.
- More protections and resources to serve voters with disabilities and overseas/military voters.
- Greater federal protections and oversight for voting in US territories.
- Improving voter registration resources and outreach, in addition to reauthorizing and strengthening the US Election Assistance Commission.
It would also:
- Prohibit partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to use certain criteria when drawing new congressional districts.
- Require states to use voter-verifiable paper ballots and conduct post-election audits.
- Give cybersecurity grants to states and directs the EAC to strengthen cybersecurity standards for voting equipment.
- Prohibit local election officials from being fired or removed without cause.
- Make interfering with voter registration a federal crime, and imposes stricter penalties against harassment, threats, and intimidation of election workers.
- Restate chain of custody requirements protecting the integrity of ballots and election materials, a provision meant to combat unofficial partisan ‘audits.’
Finally, on campaign finance reform:
- It includes provisions from the DISCLOSE Act, which targets so-called dark money in elections, and the HONEST Ads Act, which seeks to enhance transparency in campaign advertising.
- Creates a federal obligation for campaigns to report instances of foreign interference.
- Stricter enforcement of illegal coordination between single-candidate PACs and campaigns.
- Stronger enforcement of campaign finance regulations by the Federal Election Commission.
The John Lewis bill would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights of 1965 that have been struck down or weakened by the Supreme Court, and change the way federal courts handle election cases.
Senate Republicans struck down the act in November. All GOP senators voted against it except Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. But her support still left Democrats short the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation.
McConnell called the bill a ‘trojan horse.’
‘This is a Trojan horse to carry a lot of other provisions that the Democrats had wanted to enact through the earlier voting rights bill that we’ve already considered and rejected,’ he said.
‘Clearly they want to change the subject away from how the American people feel about this administration, about the reckless tax and spending bill onto a nonexistent problem with this marching out of the John Lewis voting rights act,’ he said.
- It creates a new formula to restore the federal preclearance requirement mandating states with histories of discrimination to seek permission from the federal government before enacting new voting rules or redistricting plan. The Supreme Court struck down the old formula.
- Reverses the Supreme Court’s new ‘guideposts’ and standards from the Brnovich decision that make it harder for plaintiffs to prove racial discrimination under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
- Enshrines judicial precedent and legislative history to strengthen efforts to draw majority-minority districts under the parameters of the Voting Rights Act.
- Takes aim at the federal courts by requiring judges to explain their reasoning in emergency rulings they take up on the so-called shadow docket, and tries to limit judges’ from relying solely on the proximity to the election in deciding emergency cases on election rules, known as the Purcell principle.
- Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act, which provides greater federal protections for election workers against harassment and intimidation.
- Includes the Native American Voting Rights Act, a bill that strengthens voting rights and voter protections for voters in Indian Country.
Manchin has said several times he is willing to change the Senate rules but only with Republican support.
Democratic senators have been meeting with both him and Sinema this week in an effort to get their two colleagues on board.
And Harris went after the two senators in an interview with NBC News.
‘I don’t think anyone should be absolved from the responsibility of preserving and protecting our democracy, especially when they took an oath to protect and defend our Constitution,’ she said.
Schumer has said repeatedly he wants voting legislation passed by January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The Senate Majority Leader also has warned senators they may have to stay in Washington D.C. for the weekend, and some are expecting the vote to take place on Monday – the federal holiday.
The pressure of Thursday’s Capitol Hill meeting was heavy.
Barack Obama, in an op-ed published in USA Today, wrote that the Senate filibuster ‘has no basis in the Constitution’ and argued it was used by Southern senators to block civil rights legislation that disenfranchised black voters.
‘I fully support President Joe Biden’s call to modify Senate rules as necessary to make sure pending voting rights legislation gets called for a vote,’ Obama wrote.
‘In recent years, the filibuster became a routine way for the Senate minority to to block important progress on issues supported by the majority of voters. But we can’t allow it to be used to block efforts to protect our democracy,’ he noted.
Barack Obama joined the campaign to pressure Democratic senators into supporting voting rights legislation, backing Joe Biden’s demand to kill the Senate filibuster
In his op-ed, Obama invoked the words of legendary civil rights leader John Lewis, for whom one of the voting bill is named.
And he warned of legislation being passed in Republican-controlled states that could hurt Democrats at the ballot box this November, when voters will decide which party controls the House and Senate.
‘What we’re seeing now are far more aggressive and precise efforts on the part of Republican state legislatures to tilt the playing field in their favor,’ Obama wrote.
‘Perhaps most perniciously, we’ve seen state legislatures try to assert power over core election processes including the ability to certify election results. These partisan attempts at voter nullification are unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times, and they represent a profound threat to the basic democratic principle that all votes should be counted fairly and objectively,’ he added.
His support comes after Biden went to Atlanta where he attacked Republicans for not supporting the voting legislation and called for the change in Senate rules to get it passed.
‘The threat to our democracy is so grave, we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote,’ Biden said in his speech. ‘Let the majority prevail.’
Republicans ratcheted up the rhetoric on Wednesday in response to Biden’s own fiery address, where he accused the GOP of standing on the wrong side of history when it came to voting rights.
‘The president’s rant – rant – yesterday was incorrect, incoherent, and beneath his office,’ Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in his remarks on the Senate floor, calling Biden’s speech ‘profoundly, profoundly unpresidential.’
In response, Biden tried to meet with McConnell when he was at the Capitol on Wednesday to pay his respects to the late Senate leader Harry Reid, whose remains were lying in state in the Capitol rotunda.
The two men did not connect, however.
Biden seemed to shrug off the attacks.
‘I like Mitch McConnell. He’s a friend,’ he told reporters in the Capitol when asked about what McConnell remarks.
The war of words comes as both sides prepare for this November’s midterm election, which will determine what political party controls the House and Senate next year. The battle centers on voting rights legislation that Democrats want to pass, saying it will protect the right vote, and Republicans roundly oppose, saying elections are state issues.
Biden made the case for Democrats in a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, which led to the Senate Republican leader’s response.
Biden ‘delivered a deliberately divisive speech,’ McConnell charged.
‘It was designed to pull our country further apart.’
McConnell blasted Biden for comparing those who opposed federal voting laws ‘to literal traitors’ and said he was demonizing ‘Americans who disagreed with him.’
‘He called millions of Americans his domestic enemies,’ the GOP leader charged.
‘Look, I’ve known liked and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at the podium yesterday,’ he noted.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell tore into President Joe Biden, calling his Atlanta speech ‘incorrect, incoherent, and beneath his office’
In his speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, President Joe Biden repeatedly attacked Republicans for blocking voting rights legislation and accused them of weaponizing the filibuster
In his speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, Biden repeatedly attacked Republicans for blocking voting rights legislation and accused them of weaponizing the filibuster.
‘The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart,’ he said. ‘The filibuster has been weaponized and abused.’
And Biden framed the debate as a political choice – to support or divide the country.
‘Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?,’ Biden asked.
‘This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy,’ he said, adding: ‘Each one of the members of the Senate is going to be judged by history on where they stood before the vote and where they stood after the vote.’
But as Biden makes the case against the filibuster, Republicans argue for it, warning killing it to make an exception for voting rights legislation could lead to it being killed for other issues, diminishing its power.
The loss of the filibuster’s power is behind Manchin’s and Sinema’s hesitation in voting to kill it.
Why do Biden and the Democrats want to kill the filibuster to pass voting rights?
President Joe Biden on Tuesday said the U.S. Senate should consider scrapping a longstanding supermajority rule known as the ‘filibuster’ if necessary to pass voting-rights legislation that is opposed by Republicans.
It is a surprising move for Biden who defended the rule during his 36 years as a Senator. But he believes the current threat to democracy is so severe Congress needs to pass either the Freedom to Vote Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act without Republican support.
‘I believe the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,’ he said in his speech in Atlanta. ‘Debate them. Vote. Let the majority prevail—and if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.
Critics say the filibuster, which requires 60 of the 100 senators to agree on most legislation, is an anti-democratic hurdle that prevents Washington from addressing pressing problems.
Supporters say it forces lawmakers to seek consensus, serves as important check on the party in power and ensures that major laws that affect American life don’t change radically with every election.
Once a rarity, the filibuster is now routinely invoked. In recent months, Republicans have used it to block voting-rights bills and bring the United States perilously close to a crippling debt default.
Democrats could use their razor-thin Senate majority to eliminate the filibuster altogether.
But centrist Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema oppose this move, saying that it will shatter the few bipartisan bonds that remain and give Republicans free rein if they take a majority in the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has warned that his party would use other tactics to bring the chamber to a halt if the filibuster is eliminated.
WHAT IS THE FILIBUSTER? TERM DERIVED FROM CARIBBEAN PIRATES THAT MEANS ‘TALKING TO DEATH’
Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate was set up to allow for unlimited debate. In the 19th century, lawmakers developed the filibuster – a word derived from Dutch and Spanish terms for Caribbean pirates – as a way to talk a bill to death.
Then-Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond set the record when he spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to block a major civil rights bill. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy spoke for nearly 15 hours in 2016 to press for gun-control legislation and Republican Senator Ted Cruz spoke for more than 21 hours in 2013 to protest President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act. None of those efforts were successful.
Senators agreed in 1917 that a vote by a two-thirds majority could end debate on a given bill. That majority was reduced in 1975 to three-fifths of the Senate, currently 60 senators.
Under current rules, senators don’t need to talk to gum up the works — they merely need to register their objection to initiate a filibuster.
Over the past 50 years, the number of filibusters has skyrocketed as Democrats and Republicans have become more politically polarized. From 1969 to 1970 there were six votes to overcome a filibuster, the nearest reliable proxy. There were 298 such votes in the 2019-2020 legislative session.
WHY IS THIS A PROBLEM FOR DEMOCRATS?
Democrats control 50 seats in the Senate, which allows them to eke together a majority with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking 51st vote when needed. They can’t overcome filibusters unless at least 10 Republicans vote with them.
Democrats were able to bypass the filibuster to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus plan using a special process known as ‘reconciliation’ that only requires a simple majority for certain budget bills. But that process is subject to complex limitations and cannot be used regularly.
Republicans have blocked many other Democratic priorities, though 19 of them did vote for a $1 trillion package to revamp the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
CAN THE FILIBUSTER BE CHANGED?
There have already been changes.
In 2013, Democrats removed the 60-vote threshold for voting on most nominees for administration jobs, apart from the Supreme Court, allowing them to advance on a simple majority vote.
In 2017, Republicans did the same thing for Supreme Court nominees. Both the 2013 and 2017 Senate rule changes were made by simple majority votes.
Some Democrats have called for eliminating the filibuster entirely, but they lack the 50 votes needed to take that step.
Democrats plan to vote sometime over the next week to scale back the filibuster so it would not apply to voting-related legislation. But it’s not clear whether they have the votes for this either; Manchin said last week that he would prefer to get some Republican buy-in for that change.
On Sunday he said he might support making the tactic more ‘painful’ by requiring senators to keep talking on the Senate floor.
Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, long supported the filibuster but has grown more open to changing it as Republicans have blocked several of his major initiatives over the past year.