Key Biden ally in Senate calls for abolishing filibuster to pass voting rights legislation

·Senior Writer
·4 min read

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a longtime ally of President Biden, announced his support for eliminating the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation after Republicans again blocked it.

In a Thursday op-ed in his home-state paper, Carper noted that 19 Republican-controlled states have passed laws making voting more difficult while many GOP candidates and lawmakers embrace the “big lie” that widespread voter fraud occurred during the 2020 election.

“I’m an optimist by nature, so I want to hold out hope that a compromise can be reached,” wrote Carper. “But I cannot look the other way if total obstruction continues. I do not come to this decision lightly, but it has become clear to me that if the filibuster is standing in the way of protecting our democracy then the filibuster isn’t working for our democracy.”

On Wednesday, the Senate again attempted to pass voting rights legislation named after the late Rep. John Lewis and it again failed to clear the 60-vote legislative filibuster, with only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voting for it.

The filibuster is a decades-old Senate rule that was once rarely invoked, but has since become a routine part of Senate lawmaking. If all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats voted to remove the filibuster and united around an agenda, they would be able to pass legislation with a simple majority and Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., walk together in the Senate subway at the U.S. Capitol.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in the Senate subway at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 6. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The filibuster’s defenders — a list of people that over the decades included Sen. Joe Biden — argue that the rule is needed to prevent volatility as different parties assume power and attempt to reverse one another’s legislative efforts. Biden has held back his defense of the filibuster since entering the Oval Office, but his exact stance is unclear. Last year, former President Barack Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” and said it should be removed if needed to pass voting rights legislation.

The extension of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965, used to be a bipartisan formality, including when it cleared the Senate on a 98-0 vote in 2006. But following the Supreme Court’s gutting of the legislation in 2013, access to the ballot and gerrymandering have increasingly become partisan issues.

Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, attempted to work out a compromise voting rights bill in June but was swiftly rejected by the Republican colleagues he was courting. While Carper left the door open for a bipartisan deal in his op-ed, he concluded by stating that a more radical option may be necessary.

“No barrier — not even the filibuster — should stand in the way of our sacred obligation to protect our democracy,” he wrote Thursday.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., at a hearing on Sept. 21. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Carper’s position may signal further change from the White House. He was first elected in 2000 and served alongside Biden in Delaware’s Senate delegation until Biden became vice president in 2009.

After Biden called the state-level legislation making it more difficult to vote “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War” in June, the president still declined to call for the filibuster’s removal. That position softened at an October town hall, where he said he would consider doing away with the filibuster in order to pass voting rights, adding, “and maybe more.”

“Stay tuned,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Oct. 22 when asked about those comments. “It’s to have a discussion. I expect you’ll hear more from the president about it in the coming weeks.”

Activists have been calling on the White House to take a firmer position against the filibuster, even though doing so is no guarantee that Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., or other centrist members of the caucus will go along with it. On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the failed voting rights vote a “low, low point in the history of this body” and said, "We will continue to fight for voting rights and find an alternative path forward.”

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