With voting rights legislation stalled, Biden still isn't budging on the filibuster

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The White House defended President Biden’s position on the filibuster Wednesday even as civil rights groups and congressional Democrats pushed him to do more to get federal legislation on voting protections passed.

Biden delivered a speech Tuesday in which he called Republican bills restricting voting rights and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election results “the most significant test to our democracy since the Civil War” and urged Congress to take action in passing federal protections.

“There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections,” Biden added. “An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are as Americans.”

However, Biden did not mention the legislative filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance a bill, which has historically been used to block civil rights legislation. Despite consistent pressure during his time in office, the president has declined to call for the scrapping of the filibuster, and the White House has repeatedly said it’s a Senate issue to be left to lawmakers.

President Joe Biden talks with Al Sharpton after speaking about voting rights at the National Constitution Center on July 13, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Biden talks with the Rev. Al Sharpton after speaking about voting rights at the National Constitution Center on Tuesday in Philadelphia. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The elimination of the filibuster would require the agreement of all 50 Senate Democrats. Some moderates, such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have been outspoken in their refusal to go along with their party.

With Senate Republicans refusing to support H.R. 1, a voting protections bill passed by the House, the 60-vote threshold essentially dooms Democratic efforts to enact election reforms. A proposal by Manchin to forge a bipartisan solution was quickly dismissed by his colleagues across the aisle.

While acknowledging that Biden cannot unilaterally kill the filibuster, many Democrats want him to speak out more forcefully against it.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who Biden acknowledged at the beginning of his speech on Tuesday, said he spoke with the president following the address and noted the omission.

“I said to him I thought it was a good speech,” Sharpton told the Associated Press. “I was very happy to hear him bring up race. But we’re still waiting on the filibuster. He told me, ‘We’re still working on our position on that.’ He was noncommittal.”

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also applied pressure on the president following the event.

“We believe, as we shared with the President directly in a meeting at the White House last week, that the urgency of this moment requires an end to the use of the filibuster to block critical legislation that is needed to protect the right to vote,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the group, said in a statement. “We hope that the President will use his influence and voice to speak directly to this issue in the coming days.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Monday, July 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a press briefing on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the filibuster repeatedly during Wednesday afternoon’s briefing. In response, she praised the president’s speech and said the filibuster is a matter to be decided among Senate Democrats, while noting that a number of the caucus members were against its abolition.

“We do hard things, we don’t accept that there isn’t a path forward,” Psaki said. “We’re going to continue to engage with leaders in Congress not just for the For the People Act but for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

“In terms of the filibuster, it is a legislative procedural process that is up to the Senate to determine the path forward on, and I will leave it all to you to determine what the vote count and the whip count is there, but there is not a majority to support that. I know we focus on one or two, but there is certainly more than that on individuals who oppose changes to the filibuster because of the history,” Psaki added, although it was unclear to what history she was referring.

As of June 21, 17 states had enacted 28 new laws this year that restrict access to the vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. At least 61 bills with restrictive provisions are moving through 18 state legislatures, while 31 have passed at least one chamber.

Other Democrats have called for a modification to if not straight abolition of the legislative filibuster if it stands in the way of strengthening voting rights.

Former President Barack Obama gives the eulogy at the funeral service for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images)
Former President Barack Obama gives the eulogy at the funeral service for Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30, 2020, in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images)

During his eulogy for civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis in July 2020, former President Barack Obama listed a series of suggestions for improving voter participation, including expanding early voting, making Election Day a national holiday and ending partisan gerrymandering.

“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.

In a story published Saturday, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn told Politico that the voting rights bill will pass only if Senate rules are changed to allow a 51-vote majority instead of the 60-vote threshold. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., agreed with Clyburn in expressing hope that the president would endorse a carve-out to the filibuster for bills related to voting reform. Psaki dismissed Clyburn’s proposal at Monday’s briefing, saying changes to the filibuster “will be made by members of the Senate, not by this president or any president, frankly, moving forward.”

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., the House Budget Committee chairman, told Politico he hoped the president “gets a little more aggressive” on reforming the filibuster.

In Texas, Democratic lawmakers have fled the state in an effort to deny Republicans the quorum they need to pass voter restriction laws. The Texas House cannot conduct legislative votes unless at least two-thirds of its members are present. Thus, the House Democrats plan to remain in D.C. until the end of the special legislative session on Aug. 6.

By going to D.C., the delegates are also putting pressure on the president to more aggressively advocate for the For the People Act.

“That’s our message to Congress,” said Rep. Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic Caucus chair, to the Texas Tribune. “We need them to act now.”

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