Biden Defense of Filibuster Withers Under Partisan Rancor

WASHINGTON – President Biden’s decision to call for changes to Senate rules to pass voting rights protections was long in coming. Perhaps – in the opinion of his most disgruntled supporters – too long.

A self-proclaimed institutionalist who has spent more than three decades abiding by these rules as a senator, Mr. Biden has repeatedly defended the often obscure Senate procedures, even as Republicans used them to block his agenda and he suffered harsh abuses. increasing pressure from the Liberals. activists in his party to rethink his position.

These rules, he said with admiration over a decade ago, were about “compromise and moderation”, an essential part of his political identity. Supporting their change would be admitting that the principles he cherished had withered in a city now plagued by partisan resentment.

Tuesday, he made this admission.

“The threat to our democracy is so great that we have to find a way to get these voting bills passed,” he said in a heated speech in Atlanta on the grounds of Morehouse College and from Clark University in Atlanta. “Debate them. Vote. May the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no choice but to change the rules of the Senate, including getting rid of the filibuster. “

Mr Biden said he had “had these quiet conversations with members of Congress over the past two months” in hopes of reaching the kinds of negotiated deals he sought as a senator.

“I’m tired of being silent,” he said.

It is far from clear that Mr Biden’s remarks will succeed in convincing the most prominent opponent of a rule change among Senate Democrats – Joe Manchin III of West Virginia – to help break down the Republican deadlock on voting rights legislation. On Tuesday, Manchin again said he was opposed to “getting rid” of the filibuster, which allows the minority party to block legislation that does not get 60 votes.

Some of Mr Biden’s closest allies have said they remain deeply frustrated with the president’s willingness to take the lead on the issue of voting rights.

“We were hoping he would have used his bully chair a long time ago for the right to vote and we would not be at this critical crossroads,” said Helen Butler, a black Democrat who was removed from an electoral council local in Morgan County, Georgia. ., after a state law gave Republicans more power over such appointments.

“It’s about keeping America and, as he said, the soul of America,” she said.

Democrats who are trying to stop Republicans from blocking voting rights legislation have said they are happy Mr Biden has finally returned. And they’re hoping – but realistically – that his voice can help convince a handful of senators to support a rule change obstruction in the days to come.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia who has led talks to change the rules, said Mr Biden had taken office with a “special obligation on his shoulders” – to defend the rights of voters in the wake of the violent assault on the Capitol. last January when his electoral victory was attested.

“When someone who understands the Senate and loves it as much as it does say it’s time to make a change to achieve a paramount result the nation needs, it has an effect,” Kaine said.

For some presidents, the choice to support a change in Senate rules to protect voting rights could also have portrayed a broader realization that the Senate was no longer a place where partisanship could be put aside for the sake of it. well of the country.

This is certainly the view of many in his party, who assert that sweeping legislation like the President’s Build Back Better package and gun control proposals are doomed to falter without sweeping changes to policies. Senate rules.

Indeed, they argue that today’s intense partisanship has led to an ideological deadlock that justifies the burning of the house in the name of progress on many fronts.

“He should have made this much more of a priority for his administration,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder and chairman of Democracy 21, a group that calls for changes to Senate rules. “But he can still make a critical contribution by speaking out and actively and forcefully engaging in battle.”

Charles McKinney, chair of the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair in African Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, said Mr Biden’s speech on Tuesday should not end his efforts to move forward.

“OK, you give your little speech, say the things you need to say in Georgia,” McKinney said, describing his message to the president on Tuesday. “And then you have to go back to DC”

Mr Biden left no doubt he has reached a breaking point on voting rights, lashing out at Senate holdouts and comparing them to some of the country’s most infamous racists . In doing so, he made no distinction between Republicans in the Senate and a handful of Democrats who stand in the way of the legislation.

“Do you want to be on Dr. King’s side or George Wallace’s side?” He declared, causing some hiccups from supporters in the audience. “Do you want to be with John Lewis or Bull Connor?” Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? “

But for Mr Biden, the slow evolution from a protector of Senate rules to a president willing to shake off filibuster to advance voting rights legislation hardly seems to be part of a transformation into depth of its approach to governance in the modern era. .

Even though White House officials caught sight of Mr Biden’s remarks on Monday night, they did everything possible to insist that he remained “an institutionalist,” a recognition that his willingness to change has its limits.

Mr Kaine said the president sees the need to protect voting rights as a special responsibility, separate from other parts of his political platform.

“He probably wouldn’t be looking at Senate rules, reform proposals on any other issue, even issues that he thinks are very, very important,” Kaine said. “I can’t imagine him probably, you know, making recommendations to the Senate about what we do with the rules on anything other than this one.” “

Mr. Biden’s own words over the years support this conclusion.

In July 2020, as a presidential candidate, Biden hinted that his long-standing support for Senate filibuster rules may have weakened a bit. When asked if he supports removing the filibuster, Biden said he was open to the possibility.

“It’s about how loud they get,” he said of Republicans. “But I think you’ll just have to take a look. “

As the pressure to pass voting rights legislation increased, Mr Biden was still hesitant. He said last month he would support changing Senate rules to pass voting rights bills, but noted: “I don’t think we have to go that far.”

Mr. Biden understands the political dangers of moving slowly amid major shifts in opinion among supporters and the general public. In 2012, as vice president, he saw President Barack Obama criticized by members of the gay rights movement for taking years to “change” on his support for same-sex marriage.

In this case, Mr. Biden was ahead of Mr. Obama and he was applauded by activists who have become longtime supporters.

As he left the White House for Georgia on Tuesday, the president was asked what he risks fighting for voting rights legislation, a reference to the political dangers of promising more than he can. deliver.

“I might not say what I think I do. That’s what I’m risking, ”Biden said. “This is one of those defining moments. It really is. People are going to be judged, where were they before and where were they after the vote. History will judge.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reports.