Politics

Joe Biden Wants to Kill the Filibuster Without Killing the Filibuster

Mitch McConnell warns of impending disaster as reform gains support.

President Joe Biden waves, while wearing a face mask on the lawn.
President Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Joe Biden, who has long defended the existence of the Senate filibuster, said Tuesday that he supports drastically revamping the procedure.

“I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster,” Biden said in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. But, Biden said, “you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days.”

In other words, he supports some reversion away from the current rules—which allow the minority to simply announce its intention to block legislation unless a 60-vote supermajority says otherwise—to the previous process of a “talking filibuster.” Under that system, Biden recalled, “you had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking” in order to prevent the majority from moving forward with legislation.

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“It’s getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning,” Biden said.

Democrats have been preparing for a showdown over the filibuster ever since they won the Georgia Senate runoffs, securing control of a 50–50 Senate and completing a narrow trifecta of the presidency and both chambers of Congress. The party was able to pass its first piece of major legislation, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, through reconciliation, a budget process that cannot be filibustered. Democrats may also be able to do most of their planned infrastructure package through the same process.

But the entirely party-line vote on the American Rescue Plan, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s history of using the filibuster as an all-encompassing blocking device, served as a warning that the rest of the Biden legislative agenda—on democracy reform, voting rights, boosting unions, police reform, gun control, and anything else where new policy that can’t be strictly measured in taxes and spending needs to be done—could be dead on arrival if the legislative filibuster remains as is.

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Biden’s remarks, as Democratic supporters of reform said following the interview, suggest that he’s come to terms with that.

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“He gets it,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee—who said earlier this month that she would “get rid of the filibuster” to move ahead with Democrats’ agenda—told reporters. “We just can’t wait two years to get things done.”

“Although unspecific, President Biden’s remarks are a major shift in his position, so it seems to me, and should spur reform,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “Clearly, President Biden was encouraging us to reform, even without specifying the exact kind of reform. He has given new energy and potential movement to reform efforts.”

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In past debates over the filibuster, defenders of the process—including Democrats like Joe Biden—have successfully hailed it as a vital Senate tradition, one that sets the chamber apart from the House by requiring deliberation and cooperation. The proposal for the talking filibuster, though, casts reform as the true traditionalist position.

“I think a talking filibuster’s entirely appropriate,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a senator closer to the caucus’ center flank, told reporters. “This is the way it always should’ve been.” Tester clarified that this wouldn’t change the 60-vote threshold for ending debate itself. “But I think it would reduce the number of filibusters,” he said.

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There’s good evidence for that. Prior to the 1970s, a filibuster could consume days and days of precious floor time and generally throw scheduling into chaos. Then the Senate moved to a “two-track system” in 1970, allowing the body to shift away from filibustered items onto other matters of business. The change, which was meant to make things run more smoothly, eliminated the pain of underwriting the filibuster—leading to a substantial increase in its use, and eventually to the current age of full-time obstruction.

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“Party leaders on both sides of the aisle thought tracking would help them make the floor schedule more predictable,” George Washington University professor Sarah Binder explains in the Washington Post. “But tracking also made it easier for senators to filibuster. Even threats to filibuster could be sufficient to move the Senate onto the second track. As the Senate became more partisan, while blocking bills required so little effort, leaders filed an exponentially increasing number of cloture motions, routinizing the silent filibuster.”

Democrats don’t have the votes to nuke the legislative filibuster entirely. But making filibustering more of a burden on the minority—an idea that even West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a filibuster enthusiast, might be willing to consider—could give them a way to mitigate its routine use. Biden’s comments push the notion even more firmly into the party’s mainstream.

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A talking filibuster may sound like small beans, compared with sweeping it away entirely, but the discussion has been serious enough to prompt McConnell, who perfected the routinization of the filibuster in his last stint as minority leader, to predict a new age of hell on earth should Democrats eliminate or weaken the procedure. After spelling out several, self-contradictory ways in which such a change would backfire against Democrats in a Tuesday speech, McConnell followed up on Wednesday with a warning about the “national security implications” of eliminating the filibuster.

As a general rule: If a minority leader is warning that the majority could endanger national security by reforming the Senate procedure for ending debate on legislation, things are getting real.

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