We can no longer entertain more mushy-mouthed both-sides talk on the filibuster, an obstructive tool not found in the Constitution that has been historically used to block civil rights progress and, similarly, is being wielded by Republicans now to turn the Senate into the legislative graveyard for Joe Biden’s agenda.
Thankfully, in Tuesday night’s ABC News interview, Biden for the first time offered his robust support for reforming the filibuster. He longed for a return of the “talking filibuster,” which has been romanticized by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which Jimmy Stewart plays an earnest and sincere first-term senator who collapses on the floor after a marathon 25-hour speech to delay a corrupt appropriation bill.
Senator Mitch McConnell might not last even 25 minutes, but I could certainly see Senator Josh Hawley and Senator Ted Cruz milking the stage to inveigh against Dr. Seuss and Potato Head’s pronouns for 25 hours. This reform might weaken the filibuster by adding some extra hurdles, but the weapon would still be on the table, partially loaded and effective enough to kill progress on gun control, infrastructure, election security, climate change and any other issue that the majority wants to advance so we can confront the challenges of the 21st century.
In his ABC interview he said, “I don’t think that 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.” Although I understand Biden’s optimism and appeal for bipartisanship, there’s no way forward where the filibuster can be reformed, especially considering the bad faith obstructionism of an increasingly extremist GOP and the memory of the “old days” where it was used to advance segregation and disenfranchisement.
“The story of the Senate through the 1960s was, in large part, the story of white supremacist minority’s struggle to acquire veto power through the filibuster. Once they did, it was hard to use, and was only consistently deployed to maintain the oppression of Black Americans—since that alone provided sufficient motivation,” writes Adam Jentleson in Kill Switch, his excellent and informative history of the filibuster and the rise of the modern Senate.
President Obama gets it. At congressman John Lewis’s funeral last year, Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” that would have to be eliminated to enact voter rights legislation. That legislation includes the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that would restore protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, gutted by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and help eliminate voter suppression and racial discrimination.
It also includes the For the People Act, which passed in the Democratic-controlled House, that is currently destined to meet death in the Senate. There’s zero chance that 10 Republicans would cross over and support landmark legislation that would expand voting rights, end gerrymandering, and expose dark money in elections.
As we see right now across the country, they’re doing the opposite. Specifically, Republicans are going after states where Biden won, like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and especially Georgia, to make sure the will of the diverse majority is never realized again. These bills will eliminate early in-person voting on Sundays, when many Black citizens go to church and then go vote as a community, purge voters from rolls, add restrictive voter ID requirements, eliminate automatic same-day voter registration, and limit early and absentee voting. Basically, every belligerent voter suppression tactic Governor Brian Kemp unleashed in Georgia as secretary of state would be amped up on steroids.
Speaking of Georgia, President Biden and Vice President Harris are arriving in the Peach State on Friday to promote the relief bill. They’ll no doubt meet and address the tireless activists and community leaders who helped overcome historic voter suppression to deliver them the state and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate with the election of Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. This was mostly accomplished by the labor of Black voters.
But now, these voters are facing Georgia Republicans who have introduced omnibus bills that will likely pass the GOP-dominated legislature disproportionately targeting Black voters. Voting-right advocates, organizers, and activists in Georgia are doing their part to take on this initiative, such as successfully shaming and stopping corporations like Coca-Cola from supporting the restrictive bills. But there’s only so much they can do on their own.
How will President Biden explain his decision to protect the filibuster to these voters and activists who allowed him to pass his stimulus package through reconciliation? How is he going to praise the legacy of John Lewis, who bled and nearly died on Edmund Pettus Bridge for civil rights, while also standing up for one of the instruments of his oppression, the filibuster?
Is Biden going to say, “Folks, I’d love to end the filibuster, but you know, Joe Manchin from West Virginia, well, he’s a moderate and he has an independent streak. He just showed it by tanking my nomination for Office of Budget and Management, Neera Tanden, a woman of color. Also, I have to listen to Senator Sinema, another moderate, who is courting her phantom moderate base in Arizona. Folks, you might remember her when she gave a thumbs-down and helped kill the minimum wage increase while wearing a Lululemon Bag.”
President Biden said he wants to unite America and has repeatedly reached out to Republican leadership, but he and “moderate” Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are dealing with Mitch McConnell. What makes any Democrat think McConnell is interested in bipartisanship, rules, fairness, and comity?
Just yesterday, McConnell promised to go “scorched earth” against the Democrats if they used their majority status to end the filibuster. McConnell threatened to obstruct Democrats at every angle, slowing everything like molasses by requiring a quorum to get anything done. “The pendulum, Mr. President, would swing both ways,” he warned.
What else is new? Recently, it’s only been swinging the way of Republicans. McConnell, who proudly referred to himself as “the grim reaper” for his willingness to kill the Democrats’ agenda, once said the most important thing for him to do as Senate majority leader was to make Obama a one-term president. Well, he failed in that endeavor, but he was so effective in blocking Obama’s nominees that President Trump inherited nearly twice as many judicial vacancies. He also invented rules to keep Merrick Garland from getting a Supreme Court hearing, but then reneged on those rules to bumrush Justice Amy Coney Barrett onto the court.
McConnell and Republicans of course blame Harry Reid, former senator of Nevada, for going “nuclear” first in 2013 and eliminating the 60 votes needed for executive branch nominations and federal judicial appointments. But he was only forced to do that after McConnell refused to advance Obama’s thoroughly qualified, moderate and vetted judges for the United States Courts of Appeals for the District of Columbia. McConnell of course conveniently turned around and lowered the votes to a simple majority to get Justice Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court in 2017.
Why leave him the filibuster as a tool for his continued obstructionism? The only thing for certain is McConnell and Republicans will do anything to retain minority power, and if that means ending the filibuster when they get the majority, then so be it. Democrats usually bring a policy paper to a knife fight, and McConnell brings a bazooka. But it seems some Democrats are tired of losing and have learned their lesson. Reid for his part is loading the bazooka, and yesterday he said it’s time to kill the filibuster. The situation has become so dire for our democracy that even a “moderate” like Senator Amy Klobuchar is all-in for ending the filibuster, alongside Democratic whip Senator Dick Durbin.
As I’ve argued before, it’s time for Democrats to start listening to their base: Black women. In last month’s Washington Post op-ed, Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia governor candidate who was instrumental in turning Georgia blue, urged Democrats to get rid of the filibuster: “Democrats in Congress must fully embrace their mandate to fast-track democracy reforms that gives voters a fair fight, rather than allowing undemocratic systems to be used as tools and excuses to perpetuate the same system.”
The only way to protect our democracy and secure voting rights is for Democrats and President Biden to dismantle this weapon of mass obstruction and Jim Crow and end the filibuster once and for all.