March 18, 2021
President Biden said this week that he supports bringing back a requirement that senators must be present and talking on the floor to block bills, as Democrats explore ways to smooth the path for their policy agenda by revising the legislative filibuster rule, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The comments—made on Tuesday, March 16— marked a shift for Biden, who represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate for 36 years and previously had said he would prefer to preserve the filibuster rather than get rid of it, as some Democrats have advocated.
“I don’t think you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days,” President Biden said in an ABC News interview. “You had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking.”
Asked if that meant he is supporting bringing back the talking filibuster, an idea backed by a growing number of Democratic senators, Biden responded: “I am. That’s what it was supposed to be.”
The president’s remarks came the same day on which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) threatened to grind the Senate to a halt if Democrats make any changes to the filibuster, the Journal reports.
“This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change. It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books,” McConnell said in a speech Tuesday. “The Senate would be more like a hundred-car pileup. Nothing moving.”
Democrats are at least two votes shy of the 51 needed to kill off the legislative filibuster—a step that would clear the way for them to pass sweeping legislation on voting rights, immigration, gun regulations and other measures unlikely to attract bipartisan support.
As an alternative, Senate Democrats are exploring a return to traditional talking filibusters, like the one famously depicted by Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The idea was floated recently by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, who, like President Biden, has said he is adverse to abolishing the filibuster entirely but open to revisions.
Today, senators can filibuster a bill without talking at all. They don’t even have to show up in the chamber. Now momentum is building to tweak the rules, at least, to make filibustering harder.
“Senators don’t have to stand for even one minute to shut down the Senate,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, in a speech on the Senate floor Monday. “All they have to do is threaten it, phone it in, catch a plane, go home from Washington, and come back Monday to see how their filibuster’s doing. ‘Mr. Smith phones it in.’ That wouldn’t have been much of a movie, would it?”
Democrats blame a 1975 rule change that allowed absent senators to count against the 60 votes needed to end debate on a bill and proceed to final passage. They say it made filibusters less costly to the minority.
“What’s the pain?” asked Manchin on Fox News last week.
Manchin’s support for reinstating the talking filibuster isn’t new. In 2011, he was one of 46 Democrats who voted in favor of a proposal by Senator Jeff Merkley (D., Oregon) that would have required senators to take the floor and make remarks to block legislation. No Republicans voted for it, and the measure failed.
Had it passed, it would have allowed the Senate to enter a period of extended debate if a simple majority of senators voted to end debate on a bill. Senators who wanted to block legislation would have had to ensure that at least one of them was on the floor presenting arguments or the majority could move on to final passage with 51 votes.
Merkley said he isn’t wedded to his 2011 approach. “There are many nuances of different ways that it could be done,” he said. “And I’m not ready to say any one way.”
Research contact: @WSJ