Psaki’s statement was a reassertion of the White House’s long-standing position. But it came at a semi-critical juncture for the filibuster reform movement. On Sunday, one leading opponent of eliminating the filibuster, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), expressed a willingness to make some changes to the rule, prompting a wave of jubilation among progressives who have pushed for reforms.
The president’s reluctance to go as far as one of his party’s most moderate members puts him at odds with civil rights leaders, labor and social justice advocates, as well as an increasing number of Democrats in and out of Congress. Eventually, they say, Biden is going to have to address the issue more directly rather than stick to carefully-crafted statements.
“My question is how can President Biden stay out of the debate, when the filibuster is preventing him from keeping the promises he made to the American people, how is that possible?” said Aimee Allison, president of She the People, which focuses on boosting women in politics and has joined other progressive groups in fighting for a $15 an hour wage. “Sooner or later the administration is going to have to deal with the filibuster.”
Rev. Al Sharpton said he “respects” Biden’s views on the filibuster but he expects the “antiquated” rule to come up during a regular meeting between top civil rights groups on Tuesday.
“We cannot come out of this period without legislation,” said Sharpton. “We need to come out of this with voting legislation and police reform, and a filibuster is a tangible impediment to doing both.”
Psaki’s comments didn’t rule out the possibility of the president backing filibuster reform, merely saying his “preference” was not to do it. And officials at progressive outside groups who’ve spoken to administration officials about its agenda items, and the ways in which the filibuster complicates them, say the White House has never explicitly said the filibuster must absolutely stay in place, nor have said that they want to completely abolish it.
Activists who’ve met with the White House about filibuster reform haven’t been told to stay quiet either, even as they ramp up pressure campaigns. Instead, administration officials have asked advocates to give them time to find pathways under the existing Senate rules to pass a minimum wage hike, voting rights, police reform and other big items Biden promised during the campaign.
When Psaki reiterated Biden’s position on Monday, she pointed to Congress’ ability to pass the president’s Covid relief plan without nuking the filibuster as justification. “Look at what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last six weeks,” she said. “He’s on the verge of passing a historic relief bill that’s going to cut child poverty in half and create 7 million jobs.”
Psaki added that Biden wants to work on a “bipartisan basis” as the administration pursues an infrastructure package.
But opponents of the legislative filibuster quickly pointed out that the sweeping coronavirus relief bill soon to hit Biden’s desk “only passed because it was exempt from the filibuster,” as Eli Zupnick, spokesman for the anti-filibuster group Fix our Senate, put it.
Right now, the filibuster debate is “an abstract issue,” said Zupnick. But as bills expanding voting rights and establishing universal gun background checks run into a Senate blockade, he predicted that the administration’s calculus could change.
“President Biden and Senate Democrats are quickly going to face a choice as bills come from the House to the Senate that are subject to filibuster,” said Zupnick. “They’re going to have to choose between protecting the filibuster — an outdated, abused Senate rule that President Obama called the Jim Crow relic — or making any more progress on President Biden’s agenda — they can’t have it both ways.”
And it’s not just activists making the case. Last week, the two Democratic senators from Minnesota, Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, said they support getting rid of the filibuster. On Monday, Hillary Clinton told the Washington Post that she too felt the party needed to axe the rule, more than six months after Barack Obama said it should be ended if Republicans use it to block voting rights legislation.
“I would vote to do away with the filibuster,” Clinton said. “I think it has outlasted its usefulness.”
Though progressive activists were heartened by Manchin’s remarks on filibuster reform, they described it either as a “half step” or “first step” that won’t ultimately solve Republican obstruction to Biden’s agenda. Manchin appeared to endorse a “talking filibuster” proposal on Sunday, which would allow those opposed to a bill to block it only as long as they remain physically on the Senate floor. Others have raised changes to the filibuster that would make it applicable to fewer pieces of legislation rather than outright eliminating it. Democrats currently don’t have the votes to abolish the filibuster as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have said they will protect the 60-vote threshold.
“What we need from the White House is a plan for how they’re going to deliver on all these campaign promises — they have not made that clear,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a group representing service employees receiving a subminimum wage.
Filibuster opponents on and off Capitol Hill see the issue coming to a head when the Senate takes up the voting rights overhaul that the House recently passed. No Senate Republicans are expected to support the bill, which includes an automatic voter registration mandate, the restoration of voting rights to those formerly convicted of a felony and more access to the ballot box.
“Voting rights is not even a campaign platform, frankly there’s no future for elections or the Democratic Party without voting rights,” Jayaraman added. “There just aren’t 10 Republicans who are going to move on that. If the president is not going to move on filibuster reform, then what is it, what are they going to do?”
Progressive Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said he understands why an “institutionalist” like Biden is using “delicate language” when discussing the filibuster. The freshman lawmaker was not discouraged by the administration’s latest comments on Monday, but he did stress that the president’s endorsement of reform could significantly influence wary moderate Democrats in the Senate.
“I suspect one of the few people in the entire world who are able to prevail upon Joe Manchin to make changes, if not outright support the repeal of the filibuster, is President Biden,” said Jones.
“What President Biden’s press secretary today said was not inconsistent with the conclusion that the filibuster must be either reformed or repealed,” Jones continued. “She was simply expressing the preference of the president; the president also prefers to see his bills enacted.”