Politics

Biden goes nuclear on the filibuster, Republicans but his ploy runs into Democratic resistance


President Biden, in a major speech Tuesday, called for blowing up the Senate filibuster rules to fight what he says is a Republican assault on American democracy, but Sen. Joe Manchin III is again poised to derail the president’s plans.

Mr. Biden, who served as a senator for 36 years, said the upper chamber has been “rendered a shell of its former self” because Republicans have blocked Democrats from bringing two voting bills to the floor.

“I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, 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,” Mr. Biden said.

He delivered a full-throated indictment of Republicans, accusing them of perverting election laws in Republican-run states to make it harder for Black people and other minorities to vote. 

He linked Democrats’ voting agenda to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob trying to stop Congress from certifying Mr. Biden’s election win. Mr. Biden said democracy itself is under siege and needs to be protected. 

“That’s why we are here today to stand against the forces of America that value power over principle, forces an attempted coup, a coup against the legally expressed view of the American people by sowing doubt,” he said.

Changing the filibuster and passing the election and voting bills would give Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats a sorely needed legislative win ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. It would also help appease Black voters, a key Democratic voting bloc that has been disappointed by Mr. Biden’s failure to deliver promised racial justice laws despite Democrats’ control of the White House and Congress.

Standing in Mr. Biden’s way, however, are not Republicans but some Senate Democrats such as Mr. Manchin who are skeptical of using the “nuclear option” to undo longstanding filibuster rules.

The West Virginia Democrat single-handedly derailed Mr. Biden’s $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate bill in December over the high price and inflation fears, which essentially killed the president’s entire economic agenda.

This time, Mr. Manchin said gridlock has paralyzed the Senate but scrapping the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation is not the way forward.

“We need some good rules changes to make the place work better,” he said Tuesday. “But getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better.”

Mr. Manchin said changing the filibuster would be tantamount to destroying the Senate, given how closely the rule is associated with the chamber’s reputation as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

A cadre of Senate Democrats running in purple states this year is undecided on gutting the filibuster.

“I’ve never been part of an organization where it’s really, really hard to do things,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, a freshman Democrat from Arizona who faces a tough reelection race this year. “So if there’s a real proposal, I’ll take a look at it and evaluate it based on what’s in the best interests of the country.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, plans to put the election and voting bills to a vote as soon as Wednesday. If Republicans block them again, he said, the chamber will be ready to vote on the filibuster change on Monday, which is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, vowed to paralyze the Senate using scorched-earth tactics if Democrats deploy the nuclear option.

He threatened to tie up the chamber in procedural gridlock by using the Senate’s unanimous consent rule, which requires all 100 members to be on board before legislation can be brought to the floor.

“Do my colleagues understand how many times per day the Senate needs and gets unanimous consent for basic housekeeping?” said Mr. McConnell. “Do they understand how many things would require roll-call votes, how often the minority could demand lengthy debate?”

While liberal elements of the Democratic Party have called for a complete abrogation of the filibuster, other lawmakers are pushing for a less ambitious overhaul. Some want a one-time filibuster exemption to pass the voting measures.

“I’m open to a carve-out,” said Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat. “I think we need to take a look at how this play works or doesn’t work. To figure out solutions.”

Mr. Manchin said a one-time exemption would set a dangerous precedent and likely would be used by Republicans in the future to pass partisan voting bills.

Removing the filibuster would clear the way for two voting bills: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Act.

The Freedom to Vote Act mandates states to offer same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration at local departments of motor vehicles. It also creates a taxpayer-backed public financing system for House elections and imposes new restrictions on states’ authority to draw their electoral districts.

The John Lewis Voting Act would grant the Justice Department sweeping powers to oversee state elections. In some cases, according to the bill, states would have to secure the department’s approval before implementing voting laws. 

The call to change the filibuster marked a dramatic shift for Mr. Biden, who has long argued for the Senate to keep its traditions.

At a CNN Town Hall in October, Mr. Biden avoided wading into the filibuster debate. He said it could jeopardize his economic agenda.

Mr. Biden’s remarks Tuesday follow months of prodding from civil rights groups frustrated that the president hasn’t done more to advocate for voting rights, a core campaign promise.

Several voting advocate groups boycotted the event. They accused Mr. Biden of engaging in a photo op instead of negotiating with Republicans who have blocked the bills.

Among the groups that did not attend were Black Voters Matter, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund and the GALEO Impact Action Fund, which represents Hispanic voters.

Also absent from Mr. Biden’s speech was voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia.

Ms. Abrams reportedly skipped the event because of a scheduling conflict. Mr. Biden downplayed her absence.

“I spoke to Stacey this morning. We have a great relationship. We got our scheduling mixed up. … We’re all on the same page,” Mr. Biden told reporters.

• Tom Howell and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.




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