Filibuster fight looms in Senate

Supporters of nixing the 60-vote legislative filibuster are facing big hurdles in the Senate, even as President Biden joins the fray by calling for reforms.

Progressives view Biden’s comments endorsing a return to the “talking filibuster” as a big win after building pressure for months, despite the president’s reluctance to back their ultimate goal of eliminating the procedural roadblock altogether.

In the Senate, which will ultimately decide the fate of the filibuster, Democrats acknowledge they are far from being able to change the rules, meaning they’ll still need GOP support for passing most legislation.

“No, I think this is a process. And there are some who are skeptical of any change in the rules,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said about whether Senate Democrats have the votes to change the rules.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), while saying he thought Biden was right to back the talking filibuster, added, “How that impacts what the Senate will do, I think, remains very unclear.”

“I don’t think this whole thing resolves around only one or two members. This has got to be a family discussion... within the caucus and then a family discussion within the Senate itself to the extent that that’s even possible anymore,” Schatz said.

In order to invoke the “nuclear option” to overhaul or get rid of the legislative filibuster, all 50 Democratic senators would have to endorse the effort.

That puts the spotlight on Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who both have voiced opposition to removing the filibuster.

Manchin called Biden’s remarks on Tuesday evening “encouraging,” but from a different perspective than progressives.

“The president understands the importance of preserving the filibuster,” Manchin said.

“I’m still at 60. ....I haven’t changed,” Manchin said.

The moderate Democrat also shot down creating a carveout for specific issues: “No, no, no. That’s like a little bit being pregnant.”

Beyond Manchin and Sinema, there’s broader concern within the Democratic caucus about making changes to the 60-vote requirement, much less getting rid of it entirely like progressives prefer.

“There are several senators who’ve expressed concerns,” Durbin said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) signaled worries about lowering the threshold from 60 votes, only to have Republicans force through conservative priorities when they are back in the majority.

“I would say I'm undecided,” Feinstein said, adding that the impact on a future GOP majority “is a factor, one of the reasons why I'm hesitant.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said he wasn’t yet on board with getting rid of the filibuster.

“I'm not there yet,” Coons said. “I am listening to proposals from colleagues.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) endorsed the idea of a talking filibuster, but suggested it would still require 60 votes in the end to pass legislation.

“Folks who want to stop a bill have to be passionate about it.... for however many hours it might be,” Tester said. “I think it would reduce the number of filibusters.”

Biden shook up the debate over the Senate’s filibuster when he told ABC News during an interview that aired on Tuesday night that he supported reverting back to a “talking filibuster.”

“You had to stand up and command the floor and you had to keep talking along,” said Biden, who spent decades in the Senate. “Once you stopped talking, you lost that and someone could move in and say, ‘I move to the question of.’”

“You’ve got to work for the filibuster,” Biden added. “It is almost getting to the point where democracy is having a hard time functioning.”

Biden didn’t provide details on how a talking filibuster would play out in practice, and wasn’t asked about his view on maintaining the 60-vote threshold for most legislation.

But supporters of reforming the filibuster touted his comments as a win nonetheless. Getting Biden, who has appeared wary of making changes, off the fence was viewed as a crucial step by activists to help build support for ultimately removing the 60-vote threshold for most legislation.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Biden was “encouraging us to reform.”

“President Biden's remarks are a major shift in his position, so it seems to me, and should spur reform. ...He has given new energy and potential movement in reform efforts,” Blumenthal said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has been at the center of caucus discussions on the rules, said Biden’s remarks were “very much appreciated.”

“The president recognized that the government of the United States can’t do its job if it’s paralyzed,” Merkley added.

What exactly a talking filibuster would entail is unclear. Reverting to the practice could require opponents of a bill to hold the floor, and once they were finished, the procedural vote would then be determined by a simple majority.

Democrats said another approach would be to set up a talking filibuster, forcing opponents out into public view, but still keeping the 60-vote requirement.

Senate Democrats stopped short of predicting exactly what Biden was endorsing, noting he didn’t explicitly call for the 60-vote threshold to be spiked.

“He’s being vague about it, but that’s all right. I think he was acknowledging the fact that the filibuster has become institutionalized by Sen. [Mitch] McConnell. We now accept the premise that everything needs 60 votes – so we’re a filibuster Senate. And I think that is a dramatic departure from the history of the body,” Durbin said.

Asked if Biden was endorsing lowering the number of votes needed, Durbin added: “He didn’t say that. And as a student and creature of the Senate, he certainly knows how to choose his words carefully on this subject.”

Pressure over the filibuster is only likely to escalate as the House sends over a growing list of big Democratic priorities that don’t have the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate, including immigration reform, background check expansion and voting rights.

Senate Democrats introduced a sweeping ethics and election reform bill on Wednesday, with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowing to put it on the floor. It would need 60 votes to pass, but has no GOP cosponsors. The legislation, known as the For the People Act, is viewed by supporters of filibuster reform as a key bill that, if blocked, will spark broad calls to nix the filibuster. 

Republicans haven’t filibustered a bill since Biden took office, but McConnell made clear during a Fox News interview on Wednesday that they weren’t afraid to block legislation they oppose.

Supporters of changing, or nixing, the filibuster believe it will take watching Republicans block bills that have 50 Democratic votes, and broad public support, in order to move skeptics among the Senate Democratic caucus.

"We have to demonstrate to them how the rules can be used and abused before we go any further," Durbin said.

Merkley added that Democrats would see how the year unfolds.

“If McConnell continues his strategy of obstruction and delay,” he said, “then we’re going to work hard to bring everybody together to make the Senate work.