Anxiety levels rose last week when Biden appeared to defend the filibuster at a CNN town hall:
BIDEN: I want to see the United States Congress, the United States Senate, pass S.1 and S.4, the John Lewis Act, and get it on my desk so I can sign it. (Applause.)But here’s the deal: What I also want to do — I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats; we bring along Republicans, who I know know better. They know better than this.And what I don’t want to do is get wrapped up, right now, in the argument of whether or not this is all about the filibuster or —Look, the American public, you can’t stop them from voting. You tried last time. More people voted last time than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic in American history. More people did. (Applause.) And they showed up. They’re going to show up again. They’re going to do it again.But what I want to do is I’m trying to bring the country together. And I don’t want the debate to only be about whether or not we have a filibuster or exceptions to the filibuster or the — going back to the way the filibuster had to be used before.DON LEMON: But isn’t that the only way you’re going to get it done right now?THE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t believe that. I think we can get it done.
This echoes the notion from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) that there are 10 reasonable Republicans out there to support a bill. This, candidly, is bunk. There were not 10 Republicans to vote for a Jan. 6 commission; likewise, there will not be 10 to vote for any version of voting reform. This reality is evident to everyone in the voting rights community. Does Biden really believe this fairy tale?
Perhaps Biden is pretending that 10 Republicans who will defend voting rights are hiding in the weeds somewhere to avoid applying pressure on Manchin, causing the senator to dig in his heels. But if the idea is to wear Manchin down by showing how obstructionist Republicans are, spinning the tale that they really are not “that” obstructionist makes little sense.
The conversation on voting rights continued:
MR. LEMON: If you — if you — you agree with [former president Barack Obama] ... that [the filibuster is] “a relic of Jim Crow” —THE PRESIDENT: It is.MR. LEMON: If it’s a relic of Jim Crow, it’s been used to fight against civil rights legislation historically, why protect it?THE PRESIDENT: There’s no reason to protect it other than you’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done.MR. LEMON: Right.THE PRESIDENT: Nothing at all will get done. And there’s a lot at stake. The most important one is the right to vote. That’s the single most important one. And your vote counted, and counted by someone who honestly counts it.But it goes beyond that. For example, wouldn’t — wouldn’t my friends on the other side love to have a debate about the filibuster instead of passing the recovery act? Or wouldn’t they love doing it instead of being in a position where we provide for — how many of you have children under the age of 17? Raise your hand. Guess what? You’re getting a lot of money in a monthly check now, aren’t you? (Applause.)No, you deserve — (applause) — no, no, no, I really mean it. Republicans used to fight for it as well. It’s called the Child Tax Credit. If you have a child under the age of seven, you get 300 bucks a month — 350 bucks a month. If you have a child under — between 7 and 17, you get a total of 200 bucks a month. And guess what? It’s cutting child poverty in half. In half. (Applause.)
First, Republicans are pleased to both rail against Biden’s economic agenda and to defend the filibuster. The notion that “forcing” them to discuss the economic agenda is a win for Democrats is demonstrably false. Indeed, obstructionism on his economic platform and protecting the filibuster go hand in hand.
Second, regarding fears of the Senate “coming to a halt,” is Biden afraid that Republicans, for example, will not agree to raise the debt ceiling? They are already threatening to do that, likely forcing Democrats to use reconciliation to prevent a default on the debt. Is he afraid Republicans will vote no on every budget or on many of his nominees? That’s pretty much already a given.
It is because these anti-filibuster reform arguments are so weak that voting rights advocates sense Biden is not serious about modifying the filibuster and, when the chips are down, will not push for filibuster reform. This is the downside, they will say, of electing to the presidency someone who spent almost four decades in the Senate.
One school of thought among voting rights advocates is that Biden thinks passing a big economic agenda, coupled with super-duper organizing, is enough for Democrats to keep the House and Senate in 2022. Maybe something can get done on voting rights then. Of course, this is an enormous risk and disregards the potential of Republicans attempting to overturn election results.
The second school of thought is that this is all a cagey way of giving Manchin space, keeping the senator on the board to vote for Biden’s economic agenda and then leaving the “hard sell” on filibuster reform for the final push. Biden knows what matters is not what Manchin says a hundred times, but what he says just before the vote. Given Biden’s decades of experience in the Senate, it is not unreasonable to trust his tactical approach to passing legislation. Still, all outward signs suggest not to be optimistic about such a strategy.
There are several ways Biden can reassure the voting rights community without spooking Manchin prematurely. None of these are mutually exclusive.
First, stop making Manchin’s arguments for him. Biden should instead make the case that the Republicans’ use of the filibuster is a gross distortion and abuse of the procedure. Manchin needs to be convinced he is saving the filibuster, not abolishing it. (The White House might find some colleagues of the late senator Robert Byrd to make the case that even he would not have defended the filibuster as it is currently being employed. After all, Byrd helped create the reconciliation process as we know it today, which is a giant deviation from the filibuster.)
Second, Vice President Harris, instead of meeting with voting rights advocates already on board, would do well to meet with business leaders and persuade them to sign a pledge to support voting rights. That would include an airtight refusal to fund those who vote for voter suppression laws, to give their employees a paid day off to vote and to assist in voter registration. (If Harris thinks this is too political, surely Stacey Abrams would be willing to do it.)
Finally, Biden can project his seriousness on the issue. He could say, for example: “If Republicans refuse — as they did on the Jan. 6 commission — to protect our fundamental right to vote, I will find some way to get a voting rights bill through the Senate.” He need not use the word “filibuster.” But he can assure voting rights groups that when the chips are down, the filibuster will not triumph over preservation of our democracy. If he does not make such a statement, voting rights groups should understand that for all his fine speeches, Biden does not intend to go to the mat on this issue, either because he thinks fears about our democracy are overblown or because he is incapable of persuading Manchin to do the right thing.
The White House would be making a grave error if it concludes Democrats can out-organize their way around Republican efforts to impede access to the ballot box and undermine election integrity. If Biden does not go all out for voting rights reform and Democrats lose the House or Senate (thereby imperiling the 2024 presidential process), the verdict of his party and history will be severe.