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As Biden Tells Congress to Pass Pro-Democracy Bills 'Right Away,' Progressives Say: The Filibuster Must Go

"Biden called on Congress to pass a lot of great stuff tonight... But there's no way almost any of it gets to his desk unless we end the filibuster."

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the dais behind him, on April 28, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the dais behind him, on April 28, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images)

In his first nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, President Joe Biden called on lawmakers to urgently pass voting rights legislation, labor reform, a $15 federal minimum wage, and other popular bills that have been stymied by a Senate rule not mentioned in the president's speech: the legislative filibuster.

"If we are to truly restore the soul of America—we need to protect the sacred right to vote," Biden said, condemning Republican attacks on the franchise at the state level across the country, from Georgia to Florida to Arizona.

"If we have any hope of getting it done, we need to first end the filibuster. We cannot let a minority of senators representing an even smaller minority of the population stand in the way of protecting our democracy."
—Sean Eldridge, Stand Up America

"Congress should pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and send them to my desk right away," the president continued. "The country supports it. Congress should act."

H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, passed the House of Representatives in early March but has since seen no movement in the Senate due to the opposition of a single Democratic senator—Joe Manchin of West Virginia—and the legislative filibuster. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which looks to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has yet to receive a House vote in the current session.

In its current form, the filibuster effectively requires that most Senate bills receive 60 votes to pass, giving the minority party significant power to thwart legislation with virtually no effort—aside from sending an email.

Both Biden and Manchin—an ardent filibuster apologist—have suggested they would support reviving the talking filibuster, but the Senate has yet to take any concrete steps toward that or any other reform of the rule.

"President Biden laid out a bold, ambitious agenda during his speech tonight—including committing to sign into law legislation that would protect our freedom to vote and root out corruption in our politics," Sean Eldridge, president of progressive advocacy group Stand Up America, said in a statement. "And he's right—Congress needs to pass both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act."

"But if we have any hope of getting it done, we need to first end the filibuster," Eldridge added. "We cannot let a minority of senators representing an even smaller minority of the population stand in the way of protecting our democracy."

Progressive activist Kai Newkirk echoed Eldridge, writing on Twitter that if the president is "committed to his agenda, he must lead the party to end minority rule."

"Biden called on Congress to pass a lot of great stuff tonight," Newkirk noted, pointing to the $15 federal minimum wage, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and immigration reform. "But there's no way almost any of it gets to his desk unless we end the filibuster."

Abolishing or weakening the filibuster requires a simple-majority vote, meaning Senate Democrats would need the support of their entire caucus plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. At least two Democratic senators, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have thus far said they are unwilling to eliminate the 60-vote rule.

With the filibuster intact, congressional Democrats used a procedural workaround called budget reconciliation—which is not subject to the filibuster—to pass coronavirus relief last month, and they will likely have to push Biden's infrastructure proposal and newly unveiled American Families Plan through the same process.

"As hundreds of bills have been introduced at the state level to erect blatant barriers to block the votes of Black and brown Americans, passing this sweeping package of reforms simply can't wait."
—Jana Morgan, Declaration for American Democracy

"We have to prove democracy still works," Biden said during his address. "That our government still works—and can deliver for the people."

But restrictive Senate rules would bar Democrats from passing H.R. 1, immigration reform, gun safety legislation, and other top priorities through reconciliation, which requires all provisions to have a direct budgetary impact. That leaves Democrats with a choice: either convince a sufficient number of Republican senators to support those priorities—a virtual impossibility, given the GOP's public positions—or abolish the filibuster.

In an interview on MSNBC just ahead of Biden's address, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he's willing to give Manchin and other conservatives in the Democratic caucus a chance to gain some Republican backing for H.R. 1, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has bashed as a "socialist" proposal and a "partisan power grab."

If Republicans refuse to support the voting rights expansion, Schumer said, "we will have to put our heads together and figure out a way to get it done."

"I've said before, and I've said this to all of my colleagues, failure is not an option," Schumer continued. "Voting is too sacred, and everything will be on the table to get it done."

Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, said in a statement following Biden's speech that "during this unprecedented time, as hundreds of bills have been introduced at the state level to erect blatant barriers to block the votes of Black and brown Americans, passing this sweeping package of reforms simply can't wait."

"Now it is time for the Senate to double down on its efforts to realize the true promise of democracy—a government of the people, by the people, and for the people," Morgan added.

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