President Joe Biden undercut the leadership of his own party in the United States Senate on Friday by signaling his continuing opposition to scrapping the legislative filibuster.
White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki was asked during a briefing if Biden still believed the filibuster should remain in tact even as members of Senate Democrat leadership are refusing to explicitly rule out getting rid of the maneuver.
“The president’s position hasn’t changed,” Psaki said, but added that Biden’s immediate focus is working with Senate leaders on tackling the novel coronavirus pandemic. “I will say that he’s conveyed in conversations … that he is eager to move his rescue plan forward. He is eager to get relief to the American public. … He wants it to be a bipartisan bill.”
When pushed on the topic, Psaki asserted that Biden had “spoken to this many times” and his stance “has not changed.”
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The filibuster, which requires three-fifths of the chamber—usually 60 votes—to end debate on a piece of legislation, has become a point of contention between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McConnell and the GOP are requesting that any agreement on how to organize the newly elected chamber, in which each party will have exactly 50 seats, include a provision protecting the filibuster.
Schumer, who only retains the title of majority leader because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, has refused to commit to such a deal. The New York lawmaker and other members of the Democrat conference have argued that while they have no current plans to discard the filibuster, it would be a mistake to admit as much. Senate Democrats, in particular, seem to believe that as long as the threat of abolishing the filibuster remains in place it will keep Republicans from overzealously obstructing Biden’s agenda.
“It would be exactly the wrong way to begin,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told Politico earlier this week. “We need to have the kind of position of strength that will enable us to get stuff done.”
Psaki’s comments on behalf of Biden, however, undercut such posturing. Biden’s refusal to stand by Schumer and Senate Democrats, in fact, could play into the hands of McConnell and the GOP, who have argued that eliminating the filibuster would be deeply unpopular with voters.
Biden’s renewed opposition is all the more surprising given that during the 2020 campaign the president had flirted with the idea of ditching the filibuster. Last July, Biden told reporters he could be open to abolition, but a final determination would be made when it became clear how Republicans would act in the post-Trump era.
“I think it’s gonna depend on how obstreperous [Republicans] become,” the president said at the time, clarifying that he was not necessarily expressing support in one direction or the other. “But I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it.”
Even before Biden weighed in to renew his opposition, the push to abandon the filibuster had exposed internal tensions among Democrats. The party, which finds itself in control of Congress and the presidency for the first time since 2008, has struggled to articulate not only its governing agenda but the means through how that agenda will be executed.
Progressives, like Biden’s one-time rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have argued that swift action on liberal priorities, including immigration reform and expanded access to abortion, cannot move forward while the filibuster is in place. Moderates, meanwhile, have defended the rule, claiming the limitation it imposes on majority rule is the “entire premise” of constitutional democracy.
While that debate has occurred in the open, behind the scenes questions have lingered over whether Democrats actually have the votes to move forward with jettisoning the filibuster. With only 50 seats in the chamber, Democrats would need their entire conference to support any major change to the Senate rules.
In recent weeks, however, that cohesion has not been found. Although the majority of the Democrat conference likely supports getting rid of the filibuster, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has refused to back the idea. Manchin, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat representing a strongly Republican state, has only reasserted that opposition in recent weeks.