President Biden staked out new ground in the battle over the filibuster this week, saying for the first time publicly that he supported changing the practice to make it tougher for a minority of senators to block legislation.
He didn’t embrace calls to do away with the filibuster altogether, but he backed what’s become known as the “talking filibuster,” a throwback idea that would require those who want to derail a bill to have to actually hold the chamber floor.
The old-style filibuster — with a senator talking for hours on end, sometimes to the point of physical exhaustion — was the standard in the Senate for most of the 20th century until the rules were loosened in the 1970s.
Mr. Biden, who had previously stayed out of the fight over filibusters, is facing massive pressure from his political left to get involved. In an interview with ABC News, he announced his new support for the talking filibuster.
“That’s what it was supposed to be,” said Mr. Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate before becoming vice president in 2009. “It’s almost getting to the point where democracy is having a hard time functioning.”
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill called his words a seismic shift in the debate and hoped it would convince a few holdout Democrats to embrace changes.
Republicans, however, warned Democrats may come to regret it if they follow through.
“If the talking filibuster exists, it means that like-minded senators could basically occupy the floor to the exclusion of all other business for days, if not weeks, if not months, in sort of a tag-team fashion,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters on Capitol Hill. “So, I’m not sure that’s a panacea for people that they think it is.”
Sen. Jon Tester had a different take, saying the “talking filibuster is entirely appropriate” and saying he thinks it would reduce the number of filibusters in the Senate.
“That is the way it always should have been,” the Montana Democrat said. “Folks who want to stop a bill have to be passionate about it … for however many hours it might be.”
Filibustering is the practice of unlimited debate on legislation.
Under current rules, it takes a three-fifths vote of all senators — generally 60 votes, when the Senate is at full strength — to end debate and move to a final vote.
Both parties have made frequent use of the tool over the last two decades, including Mr. Biden when he was in the Senate.
President Trump had begged Republicans to do away with the practice, but GOP leaders — joined by most Democrats — insisted the filibuster was a defining feature of the Senate.
Now, with the Biden agenda impeded by Republicans’ ability to filibuster, most of those Democrats have reversed themselves and demanded a change.
Holdouts include Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Dianne Feinstein of California.
Democratic leaders are hoping to sway those lawmakers by bringing a series of bills popular among the party’s base to the floor, then daring the holdouts to join the GOP in blocking the legislation.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement helped put Mr. Biden in The White House, says one of those bills should be sweeping voting rights changes.
“There’s no way under the sun that in 2021 that we are going to allow the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights. That just ain’t gonna happen. That would be catastrophic,” Mr. Clyburn said this month.
He said if Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema “enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.”
Mr. Manchin said his focus is on preserving the “right of the minority — period” and said he still favors the current rule.
“I’m still 60,” he said and threw cold water on carving out exemptions to the rule for specific bills.
Senate Democrat Whip Richard Durbin said the hesitancy among members to change the filibuster extends beyond the usual suspects.
“There are some who are skeptical of any change in the rules,” Mr. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said. “We have to demonstrate to them how the rules can be used and abused before we go any further.”
The filibuster grew out of the Senate’s tradition for allowing extensive debate. It differs from the House, where the majority party can use its power to block amendments or cut off debate almost at will.
Indeed, Democratic leaders who now push for an end to filibustering used to complain that doing away with it would ruin the Senate.
Republicans laughed at Democrats’ change of heart.
“I’ve noticed that when Republicans were in the majority there was no talk on the part of the Democrats for eliminating the filibuster,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. “As a matter of fact, they argued for keeping the filibuster.”
The current filibuster rules date back to 1975. Before then, it took a two-thirds vote to end a filibuster, but the burden was on the minority to prove it had the votes.
In 1975, the threshold was lowered to three-fifths, but the burden was placed on the majority to prove it had the 60 votes.
Some exceptions have been carved out.
In 2013, Democrats used the so-called “nuclear option” shortcut to change the rules and reduce the vote threshold for ending a filibuster of most presidential nominees. They left the filibuster intact for Supreme Court nominees, but the GOP ended that practice in 2017 using the same nuclear option shortcut.
That paved the way for confirmation of President Trump’s three high court justices.
Mr. Trump had urged Republicans to take things a step further by killing the legislative filibuster, warning Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Democrats would do just that if they had the chance.
Former President Barack Obama, who like Mr. Biden repeatedly took part in filibusters to block GOP legislation as a member of the Senate, also has come out against the legislative procedure, calling the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic.”
Sen. Ted Cruz said Democrats have come to regret their 2013 decision to blow up the filibuster for judicial picks and “would come to regret this decision as well.
“If Democrats make the decision to blow up the Senate and turn it into a partisan jackhammer that will be a historic mistake,” the Texas Republican said.
Mr. Biden had stayed out of the fight until this week.
But his lack of success in convincing Republicans to work across the aisle with his party means Republican filibusters threaten the rest of his agenda, including legalizing illegal immigrants, expanding voting opportunities and raising the federal minimum wage.
Left-wing groups also see the filibuster as the chief hurdle to that agenda.
A group called “Fix Our Senate” announced support Tuesday from 40 organizations that are dedicated to everything from combating climate change to tightening gun laws and rewriting immigration laws.
“Senate Democrats face a choice: stand with the growing number of voices across the country who expect progress and results, or protect an outdated and abused Senate rule that has held back progress for far too long,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the group.