A coalition of faith leaders and activists on Monday demanded the elimination of the Senate filibuster, wading into a crucial debate in Washington with a 50-50 Senate and President Joe Biden eyeing ambitious legislation on expanding voting rights, stemming gun violence and other proposals that face opposition from Republicans.
Led by prominent progressive pastor the Rev. William Barber and other ministers, the group spoke out against the arcane procedural tactic, which enables a single senator to halt action or votes. Some Senators are arguing for changing or scrapping the rule, and faith leaders lent their support both online and in person outside National City Christian Church in Washington, where they held signs and chanted: “Don’t filibuster democracy.”
“Today we come because we as clergy - pastors, imams, rabbis, people from the Hindu community and the Muslim community - are challenging the immorality of the filibuster,” Barber said. “We can no longer have an impoverished democracy because a minority group of senators want to shut down open debate and shut down bringing issues to the floor, address the critical issues that face us as a people in this nation.”
The filibuster, he said, has a history of being used to block civil rights bills as well as environmental protection and labor laws.
As the U.S. and Congress have turned more partisan, the filibuster has become a key weapon in what is often described as a procedural arms race in the Senate. Year by year, more and more senators threaten to wage filibusters to block legislation. Overcoming filibusters can take days, if not weeks.
Even without a senator holding the floor, filibusters have forced senators into all-night and weekend votes to advance legislation, as happened during passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“We can’t have a small minority of people using the filibuster so that we don’t deal with voting rights, we don’t deal with living wage, we don’t deal with health care,” Barber said ahead of the event. He is a leading civil rights activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a nonprofit modeled on Martin Luther King Jr.’s organizing work.
Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches said the filibuster was “long used by avowed racists” who repeatedly wielded it as a “weapon to kill any progress to secure voting rights and civil rights.”
“The filibuster must never again be used as a threat in order to kill legislation,” he said. “It is a cowardly tactic designed to forestall progress for the good of the nation.”
Senators and others who favor keeping the filibuster tradition argue that it’s a way to ensure the minority party has sway. It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, which typically would need bipartisan cooperation. The cumbersome practice also keeps the Senate moving at a more deliberative pace as they say the founders intended, compared to the faster-acting House.
Proposals circulating in Washington would keep the filibuster but lower the threshold for overcoming it to just 51 votes, making it easier to enact Biden’s agenda over GOP opposition.
The Senate is now evenly split, but Democrats control the body with tie-breaking votes going to Vice President Kamala Harris.
Any changes to the filibuster will be difficult, especially calls to abolish it, because changes would require Republican support and some Democratic members of the senate are reluctant as well. Biden has indicated he might be open to some changes, such as requiring the senator filibustering a piece of legislation to be actively speaking in the chamber.
Shortly before the event began, the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, stressed the importance of issues such as eradicating poverty, dismantling racism and ensuring people’s unobstructed right to vote.
Faith leaders must be vocal about the moral implications of laws, she said via email: “I see my voice on these matter(s) as part of my Christian commitment to love as Jesus loves and to love my neighbor as myself.”
The filibuster “is a tool of obstruction, usually against passage of laws that protect and care for the marginalized,” Owens wrote. “Given its unjust usage, we must find another way to ensure that voices are heard, and that one cannot stand in the way of a bill simply because you disagree.”
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Gary Fields contributed to this report.
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