In a notable shift, presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden signaled his openness to getting rid of the Senate filibuster, the upper chamber’s requirement that many bills can advance only with the support of a so-called supermajority.
The former vice president and ex-senator from Delaware told a group of journalists on Monday his willingness to eliminate the filibuster would hinge on whether Republicans unfairly obstruct his agenda if he is elected president in November.
“I think it’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” Biden said, according to The Washington Post. He acknowledged, “I have not supported the elimination of the filibuster ... but I think you have to just take a look at it.”
Biden is known as a defender of tradition in the Senate, where he served for more than four decades, including eight years as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He maintained his opposition to eliminating the filibuster throughout the crowded 2020 Democratic primary, even as several of his rivals called for its ouster, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
The filibuster isn’t enshrined in the Constitution, but starting in the 1800s it evolved as a Senate rule. Once rarely used, in recent decades it has become an ever-more pervasive part of the Senate’s process. The rule allows 41 senators in the 100-member chamber to block bills from proceeding to a final vote.
Many progressives fear that the GOP, by using the filibuster, would likely prevent them from advancing their agenda even if they manage to claw back to power in the Senate ― a growing possibility ― and capture the White House in 2020.
Biden and his allies on Capitol Hill are now making clear they share that concern.
“I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Biden’s longtime friend who has been a defender, told Politico last month.
“I am going to try really hard to find a path forward that doesn’t require removing what’s left of the structural guardrails, but if there’s a Biden administration, it will be inheriting a mess, at home and abroad. It requires urgent and effective action,” he added.
As U.S. politics have become increasingly polarized, the party controlling the Senate has chipped away at the filibuster. In 2013, the then-Democratic majority pushed through a change that weakened it by ending its use for high-level executive branch appointments and nominees to federal courts, excepting the Supreme Court.
Republicans vehemently objected at the time. And just last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned Democrats they would rue unilaterally voting in the future to scrap the filibuster. But McConnell’s caution ignored the fact that with his party controlling the Senate, it has twice voted unilaterally to change the use of the filibuster ― once in 2017 to make Supreme Court nominees no longer subject to a 60-vote threshold, thereby clearing the way for Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and again in 2019 to speed consideration of lower-level presidential nominees.
“I think the important thing for our Democratic friends to remember is that you might not be in total control in the future,” McConnell said in June. “Any time you start fiddling around with the rules of the Senate, I think you always need to put yourself in the other fellow’s shoes and just imagine what might happen when the winds shift.”
Democrats most recently relied on the filibuster to block a bill Republicans crafted to respond to concerns about the behavior of law enforcement officers after the police killing of Geroge Floyd in Minneapolis. Democrats bashed the measure for proposing only cosmetic changes that fell far short of needed systematic reforms.
Within the Senate’s Democratic caucus, many members are wary of eliminating the filibuster. But with Biden softening his opposition, momentum is headed in that direction.
“It is a question of when we get rid of the filibuster. It’s gone. It’s gone,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in an interview last year.