Former President Barack Obama called the Senate filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” and argued that it should be eliminated if necessary to enact voting rights legislation and expand voter access in America.
Obama made the comments on Thursday during a eulogy for the late Democratic Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
In his speech, Obama expressed support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a House measure recently renamed in honor of the late congressman that would restore a key part of the historic Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. The former Democratic president also called for a series of voting revisions, including making Election Day a national holiday and ending partisan gerrymandering.
“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he said.
The remarks from the former president come as calls to eliminate the filibuster have grown louder within the Democratic Party during an election year where Democrats hope to win back the White House and are also fighting for the Senate majority.
Obama said, “Once we pass the John Lewis Rights Voting Act, we should keep marching to make it even better by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates, who have earned their second chance. By adding polling places, and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday.”
He went on to say, “By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, DC, and in Puerto Rico – they’re Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around.”
After endorsing those priorities, he called for the elimination of the filibuster if it is necessary to achieve them.
The filibuster is a procedural tool that can be used by senators to delay or block a vote on legislation or an appointment. It can be used as a tactic for lawmakers to keep a debate going without interruption indefinitely.
The term was popularized during the 1850s “when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill,” according to the official Senate website, which also notes that “the record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina’s J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York has said on the question of ending the filibuster that nothing is off the table, and that the matter would be discussed if Democrats win the majority. But he has not explicitly endorsed ending it either.
Some Democrats – and many Republicans – are wary of eliminating a tool that forces bipartisan consensus on major bills and gives the minority party a chance to block measures it considers egregious.
Under existing rules, senators have to win significant bipartisan support to get legislation through the slow-moving body. That means for any policy measure there must be 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
In 2013, Democrats used the so-called “nuclear option” to lower the threshold for overcoming a filibuster from 60 votes to 50 for executive branch nominees and judicial appointments, except for nominees to the Supreme Court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell later used the same controversial technique to lower the threshold for Supreme Court nominees in 2017 in order to put Neil Gorsuch on the high court.