MADRID — President Biden called for altering Senate filibuster rules to codify into law abortion rights and privacy protections, the most aggressive position he has staked out on reproductive rights and one that could reshape a roiling national debate ahead of the midterm elections.
Biden, who previously has been reluctant to change the decades-old rules in institutions such as the Senate in service of Democratic priorities, is now taking a more combative approach after the Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Biden’s comments on changing the filibuster came after Democrats had criticized what they saw as a lackluster response to a tectonic shift in abortion rights, and after many of the world leaders with whom he spent the past week had released statements critical of the Supreme Court’s decision.
“I believe we have to codify Roe v. Wade in the law, and the way to do that is to make sure the Congress votes to do that,” he said in Madrid at a news conference marking the end of a six-day foreign trip focused on the war in Ukraine. “And if the filibuster gets in the way, it’s like voting rights; it should be — we provide an exception for this.”
In some ways, Biden’s trip overseas crystallized the challenges he is facing back home, where inflation remains both a pocketbook and political issue, where a Republican minority has been able to thwart many Democratic priorities, and where the president’s approval ratings are at a record low.
Just hours after his filibuster remarks — with Air Force One still arcing across the Atlantic — it became clear that his call had done nothing to sway Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), two key lawmakers whose support he would need to change the Senate rules.
The trip also demonstrated the seeming disconnect between Biden’s aggressive view on the need to reform institutions abroad and his more tentative approach back home. Shortly after Biden’s comments, a Florida judge announced he will block a new law to ban abortions in the state after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The president, for instance, ended his three days in Madrid for a NATO summit on a muscular note, touting all that the military alliance had accomplished — a testament to its ability to respond to a changed security environment and a growing threat from Russia, he said.
“Things are changing to adapt to the world as we have it today,” Biden said. “And all of this is against the backdrop of our response to NATO’s — to Russia’s aggression and to help Ukraine defend itself.”
Yet in the United States, many Democrats have begun arguing that what they view as threats to a host of their domestic priorities — including abortion rights, voting rights and democracy — should trigger a similar rethinking of institutions.
Though Biden on Thursday did call for making an exception to the filibuster to codify Roe v. Wade, he has largely rejected appeals from Democrats to take more dramatic action on some of their key issues, such as pushing to expand the Supreme Court or providing abortion services on federal lands. And in the sprawling field of 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates, Biden was one of the few who was not in favor of eliminating the filibuster.
Still, Biden rejected the suggestion that any of his fellow world leaders viewed the United States as regressing.
“You haven’t found one person — one world leader — to say America is going backwards,” Biden said. “America is better positioned to lead the world than we ever have been. We have the strongest economy in the world. Our inflation rates are lower than other nations in the world.”
But, he acknowledged, “The one thing that has been destabilizing is the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court of the United States in overruling not only Roe v. Wade, but essentially challenging the right to privacy. We’ve been a leader in the world in terms of personal rights and privacy rights, and it is a mistake, in my view, for the Supreme Court to do what it did.”
Biden, a former longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also amplified his criticism of the Supreme Court in a way that he had historically avoided.
“I really think that it’s a serious, serious problem that the court has thrust upon the United States, not just in terms of the right to choose, but in terms of the right to who you can marry, the right to a whole range of issues related to privacy,” he said.
Biden, whose views on abortion have shifted over his decades in public life and who has often spoken with reverence of the Supreme Court and the balance of power, was pressed on whether he was the best messenger for a party wanting a more combative tone and a more forceful defender of abortion rights.
He first let out a chuckle, then defiantly responded by saying, “I am president of the United States of America. That makes me the best messenger.”
He also suggested that Democrats didn’t really have much choice — “I’m the only president they got” — before returning to a familiar rallying cry.
“If the polling data is correct and you think this decision by the court was an outrage or a significant mistake, vote, show up and vote,” Biden said. “Vote in the off-year and vote, vote, vote. That’s how we’ll change it.”
Biden also said that he would be meeting with a group of governors on Friday and have additional announcements on further steps to protect abortion rights.
The path toward changing the filibuster is still very much in doubt. While Democrats have a tenuous majority — with a 50-seat caucus, and Vice President Harris able to break a tie — not all have been supportive of changing filibuster rules to pass legislation.
After a draft decision of the repeal leaked in May, Sinema responded by defending the filibuster, pointing to its use in the past by Democrats to prevent Republicans from instituting abortion restrictions.
“Protections in the Senate safeguarding against the erosion of women’s access to health care have been used half-a-dozen times in the past ten years, and are more important now than ever,” she said at the time, in a statement that an aide pointed to Thursday.
Manchin has also previously said he was not willing to change the filibuster, and following Biden’s comments in Madrid, Manchin spokeswoman Sam Runyon said, “His position hasn’t changed.”
Several senators here, who came on a bipartisan congressional trip, also seemed skeptical that Biden’s call would alter the dynamics of the debate.
“I’m not going to speculate what the Senate is going to do with respect to the filibuster,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), noting that she had voted to end it in the past. “We may take it up — we may not.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who said that he had learned to legislate in the 60-vote threshold and was skeptical of any ways to get around a filibuster, noted the Democratic majority was perilous. A single injury — Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s broken hip — showed just how dependent the party is on one member, he said, not to mention lacking the numbers needed to make any sweeping long-term changes.
“The notion of changing the rules is really at the mercy of one or two senators who can make that decision for us,” he said. “A reporter was asking about massive institutional change. This is not the kind of political environment to be looking for that.”
Biden’s news conference came at the end of a six-day trip during which Biden met with the Group of Seven in Germany and attended a NATO summit here in Madrid. Much of the twin gatherings were centered on solidifying global alliances backing Ukraine in its fight against Russia.
Asked how long Americans should continue expecting to pay higher gas prices at the pump as a result of the war, Biden said, “As long as it takes.”
“Russia cannot, in fact, defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine,” he said. “This is a critical, critical position for the world here.”
He said he was trying other avenues to stem the rise of gas prices and sought to blame Putin for the hike.
“The bottom line is: Ultimately the reason why gas prices are up is because of Russia,” he said. “Russia, Russia, Russia.”
Asked about an endgame for the war, Biden said, “We are going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
Biden marveled at how quickly and aggressively the alliances worked to reshape its posture. The leaders this week agreed to admit two new countries, Finland and Sweden, into NATO. They also agreed to increase troop levels on the eastern flank as a way to deter Putin from invading other countries.
“Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance. He tried to weaken us,” Biden said. “He expected our resolve to fracture, but he’s getting exactly what he did not want. He wanted the Finland-ization of NATO. He got the NATO-ization of Finland instead.”
He also remarked about how much things have changed among the NATO alliance since the last time it drafted a mission statement 12 years ago.
“The world has changed — changed a great deal since then,” he said. “And NATO is changing as well.”
But as Biden returned home, the question remained whether his own country would change as quickly, or at all.
Mike DeBonis in Washington contributed to this report.
Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America
What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.
State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.
How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.