Joe Biden seems like an unlikely advocate for demanding the Senate change its long-standing rules.
Biden spent 36 years and 12 days as a Senator, often burning hours pacing and pontificating behind his desk in the Senate chamber. He’s described his time as a Senator from Delaware as “the best” of everything he’s done. Aides call him a Senate “institutionalist.”
But now that he’s President, Biden says Republican efforts to restrict American access to voting demand a change in his beloved institution. “I believe the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” Biden said in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday. “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.”
For decades, Senate rules have required that 60 Senators agree to end debate and move a bill to a vote. In today’s evenly-split Senate (run by Democrats because Vice President Kamala Harris acts as a tie-breaker), Republicans have been able to use the filibuster rule to block multiple voting rights bills that would standardize voting access measures across states. In 2021, some Democrats began calling for a carve out to the filibuster rule to allow them to pass the voting rights bills with a simple majority, and now Biden says he supports that plan.
Biden believes the Senate is broken and the threat of a filibuster is being abused to hamper the ability of those elected to govern to act. “What was once a rarely used mechanism that is not in the Constitution has injured the body enormously, and its use to protect extreme attacks on the most basic constitutional right is abhorrent,” says a White House official.
In 2005, Senator Biden was a defender of the filibuster. When Republicans were considering suspending the procedure for judicial nominations, Biden called it “an example of the arrogance of power” and “a power grab” that “would eviscerate the Senate.” Republicans backed down.
But several years later, Biden’s view of the filibuster began to sour. When Republican Senators invoked the filibuster in 2013 to defeat legislation on gun control actions following the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Vice President Biden called the rule “perverted.” A few months later, Biden supported Democrats’ decision to suspend the 60-vote threshold for judicial nominations, the same step he’d described eight years before as “arrogance.” Now, the Senate has scores of exceptions for the use of the filibuster, including judicial nominees, trade agreements, military base closings and budget reconciliation.
Biden’s conversion on this issue may be genuine, the product of Republican efforts in state legislatures to restrict access to voting and to allow politicians to determine the outcome of elections. Biden “understands that the democracy itself is imperiled by this all out assault that we’ve been witnessing by state legislatures all across the country,” Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia, told reporters before Biden’s speech on Tuesday. “This is a moral moment.”
In Atlanta, Biden challenged Republicans to forcefully denounce former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen and act to ensure votes are counted. “Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America’s right to vote,” Biden said. “Not one.”
Keen observers also see a political interest in Biden’s move. “There’s extraordinary energy for this among Democratic lawmakers and among Democratic activists, and I think the President is responding to that as well,” says Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Democrats are betting that if they bring enough attention to Republican efforts to suppress the vote, they can mobilize support to defeat that push and put more Democrats in office. Some Democrats up for election in 2022 are running explicitly on that platform. Josh Shapiro, the current attorney general of Pennsylvania, is running for governor on promises to “protect voting rights” and “defeat the big lie,” according to his campaign ads.
Even with the President’s backing, Democrats still face challenges among their own party to getting voting rights bills passed in the Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised he would change the filibuster rules if Republicans don’t agree to bring voting rights legislation to a vote by Jan. 17. But Democrats need to stay unified to change the procedure, and at least two of their colleagues—Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—have said they are reluctant to take that step.
Before his speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, Biden and Harris visited Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and Sen. Warnock is the senior pastor. As Biden walked into the church, he was asked by reporters if he has enough Senators on board to pass voting legislation. Biden pulled down the mask he was wearing. “Keep the faith,” he said.
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