President Joe Biden said Thursday during the first formal news conference of his presidency that he agreed with former President Barack Obama that the filibuster “was a relic of the Jim Crow era,” but stressed his immediate focus was addressing abuse of the rule.
Asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins if he agreed with Obama’s characterization of the controversial procedural tool, which came during the former President’s eulogy last summer for the late Democratic congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, Biden replied, “Yes.”
Pressed on why he hadn’t moved to end the filibuster if that’s the case, the President maintained, “Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible.”
“Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first,” Biden said. “It’s been abused from the time it came into being, by an extreme way in the last 20 years. Let’s deal with the abuse first.”
When Collins noted it sounded like he was moving closer to supporting eliminating the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote threshold to end debate on legislation, he responded, “I answered your question.”
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 employed 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, “The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.”
Democrats have passed several key bills in the House recently, including voting rights and police reform, but getting legislation through the 50-50 Senate, where some bills require 60 votes to pass, has been an obstacle for them.
‘Abused in a gigantic way’
Earlier in the news conference, Biden said the filibuster was being “abused in a gigantic way” and suggested he “strongly” supports moving back to its original process, which would require a senator who wants to block legislation to hold the floor without taking a break.
He had told ABC News earlier this month, “I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days.”
“You had to stand up and command the floor; you had to keep talking,” Biden said at the time.
“So you’re for that reform? You’re for bringing back the talking filibuster?” ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked.
“I am. That’s what it was supposed to be,” Biden responded.
Still, Biden said Thursday that he has an “open mind” about using the filibuster for certain topics, including voting rights, a key legislative priority for him that does not currently have the votes to pass.
People close to Biden previously told CNN that his resistance to changes in Senate rules stems from a staunch respect for its traditions and practices and an awareness that Democrats won’t always be in the majority.
Democratic lawmakers signal resolve
Some Democratic senators who have advocated gutting the filibuster expressed resolve to reporters Thursday in response to Biden’s comment that “if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond” the changes he’s advocated.
“The President understands, as I do, the maintenance and integrity of our democracy is much more important than any Senate rule,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat who has pushed to weaken the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.
Asked if Biden is moving fast enough on changing the filibuster, Warnock replied, “I have every confidence that we’re going to find a way to get voting rights down. We owe that to the American people.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, meanwhile, acknowledged that broad changes won’t happen overnight.
“This is going to be an ongoing discussion and process,” the Maryland Democrat said, and mentioned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We need to see if Sen. McConnell and Republicans continue to use that as an obstructionist tactic against common-sense and very popular legislation. I see this as a journey. I would prefer us to resolve it sooner rather than later.”
The other senator from Maryland, Democrat Ben Cardin, said he’s opposed to “the way the Senate is operating today” and will “consider all options.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, was asked if she was disappointed that Biden didn’t come out in favor of lowering the vote threshold from 60 to 51.
“The President has made clear that he understands the filibuster as it currently stands will keep us from doing the work we were elected to do,” she said. “What changes will be made we will continue to talk about. I believe we need to get rid of the 60-vote threshold.”
Asked if Biden’s agreement with Obama that the filibuster is a Jim Crow relic helps her cause, she responded, “It’s not a question of whether it helps anyone’s cause. It’s a historic fact.”
But Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose defense of the 60-vote threshold has complicated efforts to enact new gun laws and voting rights measures, told reporters Thursday he disagreed with Biden that the procedure is a Jim Crow relic.
“Basically, the Senate is made to work differently,” the West Virginian said, arguing that the chamber is meant to be deliberative to allow senators a chance to find consensus. “This was designed to be something different.”
This story has been updated with reaction from Democratic senators.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.