The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden leans into filibuster changes more than ever. But now what?

President Biden, while speaking in Atlanta on Jan. 11, endorsed changing the Senate filibuster rule to ease passage of voting rights bills. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Biden has said it before, but this time he said it with emphasis: He wants Senate Democrats to erode the filibuster so they can pass two voting rights bills.

“The next few days when these bills come to a vote,” he said in a big speech Tuesday in Georgia, “will mark a turning point in this nation. Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice?”

It’s a big shift for him personally, and his use of the bully pulpit is a new dynamic in Democrats’ push to shore up voting laws in key states before it’s too late to make a difference for them in the midterms.

But what Biden left unsaid is that he is stuck on how to get the Senate to make these changes. And he’s losing the confidence of key Democratic activists in the process.

Democratic leaders have all 50 Senate Democrats on board with two voting rights bills aimed at directly answering GOP-led voting restriction pushes in the states — no easy feat. But they can’t get all 50 Senate Democrats to agree to change filibuster rules to get this legislation passed with only their votes.

Democratic leaders point out they’re not suggesting getting rid of the filibuster entirely. It’s a centuries-old rule that allows the minority party to block legislation even though it doesn’t have a majority of votes in the Senate. Senators from both sides say it’s what differentiates their more deliberative body from the majority-rules House.

Biden wants Democrats to “carve out” an exception for voting rights. Senators can make a carve-out for anything they want, so long as they have 51 votes to do it. (Both Democrats and Republicans have ended the filibuster on presidential nominees, all the way up to the Supreme Court.) Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is going to hold a vote on ending the filibuster for voting-rights issues this week.

But Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), among other Democratic senators, are hesitant to make any changes to what kinds of legislation can be blocked. Both have explicitly opposed changes to the filibuster, though Manchin has expressed a tiny bit of willingness to revisit it.

They’ve both argued that it’s a slippery slope that could backfire on Democrats by giving Republicans an opening to push voting restriction legislation as soon as they get back in power, possibly by next year.

Legislative experts don’t disagree. A carve-out for one issue is “akin to nuking the legislative filibuster,” said Sarah Binder with the Brookings Institution, in a recent interview.

Last month, Senate Democrats actually paused the filibuster to raise the debt ceiling over Republican objections. That’s something proponents of the change for voting rights point to: The world didn’t end, they argue.

“If we can change the process on the debt ceiling,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), “then surely we can do the same to protect our democracy.”

Biden has changed his own mind about the filibuster (on the campaign trail, he was very skeptical about tweaking it). “As an institutionalist, I believe the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” he said Tuesday.

That’s a big step forward for the longtime senator, and it’s a significant shift in the debate. “This is really quite potentially historic,” said Wendy Weiser, with the Brennan Center for Justice, “and a clear signal of the importance of this for him.”

But Biden’s not in the Senate anymore and doesn’t have a vote to wield.

To some extent, the bully pulpit is all the president has to effect change in Congress. But how different of a place would we be in now if Biden had prioritized lobbying for voting rights in the past year, over, say, infrastructure and his Build Back Better spending plan?

That’s what Biden’s critics on the left — a number of whom skipped out on attending his speech — contend.

Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter lamented to CNN that during the debate over bipartisan infrastructure legislation, Biden went to Capitol Hill and told Democrats to vote for it. He has never done that when it comes to voting rights, which he professes to be one of the biggest issues of his time. “He has not told them exactly what he wants, saying ‘Joe, I want you to modify the filibuster. I want you to do it now,’ ” Albright said.

“We don’t need another speech from the president,” he said. “For seven months, we heard nothing.”

“What we need is a plan. What we need are marching orders,” Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, told The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim about why her group wasn’t at the remarks.

“Our democracy stands in its final hour,” the NAACP said in a statement. “Unless President Biden applies the same level of urgency around voting rights as he did for [Build Back Better] and infrastructure, America may soon be unrecognizable.”

One of the Democrats’ stars in the upcoming 2022 elections, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, won’t be there, saying she had a scheduling conflict but supports Biden’s efforts.

Members of the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said it was a “difficult decision” to be by Biden’s side Tuesday. “It’s been a long year of a lot of things not being done,” Arndrea Waters King told MSNBC.

These activists are so frustrated with inaction that they say they have no choice but to make headlines for splitting with Biden, right as he starts seriously stepping into the spotlight on their issue.

But perhaps even more frustrating for them is that Biden has been on their side on voting rights — even though he hasn’t been as forceful as they would have liked. He just isn’t the final arbiter of whether something gets done.