Joe Biden's Complicated History With The Filibuster

The longtime senator often defended the filibuster when it benefitted him, but he hasn't always been a fan of the chamber's supermajority requirement.

Joe Biden has long been a defender of tradition in the Senate, where he served more than four decades, including eight years as chairman of the Judiciary committee.

During that time, Biden routinely joined Democratic efforts to sustain filibusters of programs and nominations put forth by Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. He spoke out repeatedly about the virtues of the Senate as a “cooling saucer” for democracy, due in large part to its long-standing supermajority requirement.

But once he joined Barack Obama in the White House as his vice president, the longtime senator’s appreciation for the filibuster waned, an issue that is likely to heat up as Biden moves closer to a presidential run in 2020.

In 2005, for example, the Delaware Democrat urged a group of Republicans not to go “nuclear” and unilaterally change the institution’s rules to make most judicial nominees no longer subject to a 60-vote threshold. The Senate, Biden expressed at the time, remains a place where “you can always slow things down and make sure that a minority gets a voice.” He added that senators’ ability to block legislation “is what makes the difference between this body and the other one,” the House of Representatives.

In a fiery speech on the Senate floor, Biden blasted the proposed rules change as “an example of the arrogance of power” and a “fundamental power grab” that would weaken the power of independents and moderates in the Senate.

“I say to my friends on the Republican side, you may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever,” he warned. “And I pray God when the Democrats take back control we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.”

Joe Biden has long been a defender of tradition in the Senate.
Joe Biden has long been a defender of tradition in the Senate.

Republicans didn’t end up pulling the trigger in 2005, thanks to a deal on nominations reached by a bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators. But Biden’s words proved prescient nevertheless just a few years later when Democrats did exactly what he argued against.

Led by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a majority of Democrats went nuclear in 2013 to eliminate the filibuster on all nominations other than those to the Supreme Court. The move was due to complaints about unprecedented filibustering by Republicans during the Obama administration ― in particular, the blockade of three nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The 2013 rules change inevitably led Republicans to invoke the nuclear option when they controlled the chamber in 2017 in order to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, making high court nominees no longer subject to a 60-vote threshold. Some top Democrats, like Chuck Schumer of New York, the current minority leader of the Senate, expressed regret over the 2013 rules change.

But Biden backed the move at the time, despite his long-standing support for the filibuster. His changed position on going nuclear in the Senate followed several years of service in the White House, where experienced firsthand numerous Democratic proposals blocked by what he saw as unprecedented GOP obstruction.

“As long as I have served ... I’ve never seen, as my uncle once said, the Constitution stood on its head as they’ve done,” he was quoted by Politico as saying at a 2010 fundraiser. “This is the first time every single solitary decision has required 60 senators. ... No democracy has survived needing a super majority.”

Senator Joe Biden in the 1990s.
Senator Joe Biden in the 1990s.
Wally McNamee via Getty Images

In the spring of 2013, months before Democrats went nuclear over judicial nominees, Biden again expressed frustration over what he called “embarrassing” Republican threats to prevent even holding a debate on gun legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 20 children dead.

“I can’t believe the Senate will actually do it – I know I keep being told by staff they’re going to do it,” Biden said at the White House. “I can’t believe it. At end of the day, I can’t believe that it will actually happen.”

“Don’t they understand?” he continued in exasperation. “Talking about filibustering. I mean, what are they doing?”

The Senate eventually held votes on several measures to strengthen gun control, but none of them received enough support to pass due to overwhelming GOP opposition.

Biden’s stance on the filibuster will likely become an issue in 2020 should he enter the presidential race. Some on the left have called for the filibuster on legislation to be eliminated to more easily advance their agenda after the next presidential election. Most declared candidates have expressed reservations about moving to kill the filibuster, however, even as they unveil ambitious ideas that are certain to face a GOP blockade in 2020.

Biden is reportedly close to making a decision about jumping into the fray with a possible campaign launching by April, according to Axios.

“He’s someone who I am confident is going to run,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a vocal filibuster supporter himself, said Monday on “CBS This Morning.” “I’m optimistic he’s going to run.”

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